Book Review: “Overcoming Procrastination,” by Neil Fiore.

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Fun fact: this book by psychotherapist Neil Fiore on “Overcoming Procrastination” has sat on my bookshelf for well over ten years.

I probably stumbled across it closer to fifteen years ago or so.

Here’s how long this book has been around: in the examples of how someone might procrastinate, not once is social media mentioned. 

I might have procrastinated reading it. Just a bit. 

Fiore seeks to establish procrastination not just as a self-defeating habit; he wants to understand the emotional drives that underlie the tendency to procrastinate.

What he proposes is that chronic procrastinators are not trying to frustrate the people around them or harm their own careers or lives; they’re actually responding to feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, shamed, or scared. 

Fiore goes on to suggest that procrastinators have a tendency to strongly identify their worth with their work. Thus, if they do a job poorly and receive criticism, it’s as if their very person is being shamed and rejected.

This leads a procrastinator to put off starting a project, because they fear that potential for rejection and judgment. 

They’ve raised the stakes so high in their own mind that even getting started on a project feels like a risk to their very sense of self. 

Fiore goes on to explain that procrastinators tend to think of projects in terms of what will eventually be required to complete the ENTIRE thing, and to conceptualize these tasks as monumental undertakings that will rob them of any opportunities to play, connect with friends, or otherwise experience relaxation or pleasure. 

Is it any wonder, then, that viewing the world through such lenses would result in anything BUT a chronic proclivity to procrastinate? 

Procrastinators may fear failure, because if their work equals their worth, failing at work means failing at life. 

Procrastinators may fear success, because the reward for good work is often more work, and they don’t feel they can handle the extra burden successfully completing a project may bring. 

Procrastinators may even use the habit as a passive way of asserting some sort of control over a situation— or a life— over which they feel very little control. 

Procrastinators tend to talk to themselves in “shoulds” and “have to’s”, language that can’t help but reinforce the idea that they’re being forced to perform tasks that they’d prefer not to, given their druthers. 

In other words, if someone is procrastinating, it’s likely because they feel powerless, intimidated, and anxious— not because they’re trying to inconvenience or infuriate anybody. 

So what’s to be done about any of it? 

Fiore has a few ideas. 

Among the most important parts of his “Now Habit” system of combatting procrastination is the purposeful scheduling of “guilt free play.”

Fiore states that overcoming procrastination hinges upon the procrastinator being assured that the project in front of them will not eat up every spare moment available for pleasure and non-work activities. In devising a time management system, Fiore advises one to first pencil in non-negotiable blocks for non-work activities, to set one’s mind at ease that their projects are not about to take over their lives. 

Next, Fiore emphasizes breaking down the projects one has on one’s plate, deemphasizing the ultimate deadlines, and instead working backwards from those deadlines to figure out a series of potential starting points. 

Fiore says that, by emphasizing where, when, and how to START a project encourages what he calls “3D thinking” about them, putting the emphasis on the practical, do-able here-and-now/near future, rather than the intimidating end result existing out there in distant deadline-land. 

Fiore emphasizes the necessity of the procrastinator talking to themselves in terms of choice and commitment, rather than obligation. He says that, even if we’re going to make the choice to procrastinate, we need to do so consciously and like adults: we need to either choose to do the thing, or choose to not do the thing and accept the consequences of not dong the thing. 

If we want to avoid doing the thing, that’s okay— but we need to own it as a choice we’re making (that comes with a price tag)…not a position we’re being forced into. 

Fiore advances an interesting notion of “doing the work of worrying.” What he means by this is, if we’re going to worry (a frequent driver of procrastination), let’s at least make it PRODUCTIVE worrying: let’s ask ourselves what the very worst is that might happen, and let’s come up with action plans to actually HANDLE the worst that might happen, if it does happen. 

Fiore also follows in the tradition of last week’s book, Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” by emphasizing the need to associate positive experiences with getting in productive periods of work— i.e., make pleasurable experiences rewards for making progress and putting in good periods of work…as opposed to DELAYING pleasurable experiences until the ENTIRE thing is done. 

(If you delay pleasurable experiences until after the entire project is done, you’re far, far more likely to say “screw it” and indulge in the pleasant experience as a means of procrastination, as opposed to using it as a reward for having made a little progress.)

Fiore advocates a time management system he cheekily calls the “Unschedule,” which has us fitting 30 minute increments of quality work between pre-scheduled periods of play and recreation. In effect, the “Unschedule” challenges us to “fit in” our work. It’s almost a reverse psychology thing: instead of work being the set in stone thing and play being the thing we’re trying to squeeze in, make PLAY the priority and SEE IF you can fit in the work, thirty minutes at a time. 

Fiore also discusses the usefulness of entering the “flow state,” which is essentially using relaxation exercises to take the focus away from past frustrations or future anxieties and focus on the practical, do-able task right here, in front of you, right now.  

Overall, Fiore’s approach to managing procrastination focuses on identifying the cognitions— self-talk and beliefs— that fuel procrastination, and hacking away at those cognitions in cognitive-behavioral fashion.

In the end, his technique is ultimately all about managing anxiety, which he more or less views as the main culprit behind procrastination— i.e, we procrastinate because we’re anxious that work will take over our life, we’re anxious about failure, we’re anxious about success, we’re anxious about our ability to do it in the first place. 

I think Fiore hits it on the nose when he talks about how unhealthily and unhelpfully we frequently talk to ourselves. Many, many people have come to the conclusion that the only way they can motivate themselves to take action is through pressure and threats, and it just ain’t so— pressure and threats, either from the outside or from our own minds tend to have the opposite effect of motivation, i.e., procrastination and immobilization. 

I think Fiore’s ideas are all sound, and learning to communicate with yourself more compassionately and effectively is definitely a place to start when combatting procrastination.

The only glitch I find with his system is that he conceptualizes procrastination almost exclusively as an anxiety-driven defensive behavior…and while that’s true for a lot of people, I think there is a subset of people for whom that might be only partially true. 

I know I, for example, procrastinate not only out of anxiety— for me procrastination is also, in large part, borne out of my difficulty managing time; which, in turn, is a difficulty associated with my ADHD. 

“Time” is simply a concept I have a hard time wrapping my brain around; thus, there are plenty of instances in which I’m not (consciously, at least) emotionally blocked from doing the thing, or intimidated about doing the thing, or equating my worth with my ability to do the thing…I’m just not appreciating the practical steps that need to be taken in order to realistically get the thing done. 

Procrastination might be emotionally driven a lot of the time; but there’s also a skill component to time management that a lot of people just have a practical problem with. 

That said, I think Fiore’s book really hits the nail on the head in many ways. 

Understanding our emotional blocks to doing things that are within our capability to do is incredibly important to our ability to succeed and achieve. 

I think focusing on starting, rather than finishing; prioritizing play; and learning how to talk to ourselves in the language of choice and commitment, are all incredibly useful real-world skills for almost everybody. 

You matter. Full stop.

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One of our most basic human needs is to know that we matter. 

That our lives mean something. 

That our needs are important. 

That seems kind of obvious, but the truth is, many of us have conflicting feelings about the simple concept of, “I matter.” 

Many of us have been told— either explicitly or implicitly— that we’re not, in fact, particularly important. 

Sometimes we’ve been told it’s wrong or selfish to consider ourselves important. 

For some of us, we’ve gotten messages from our religious traditions that we should put ourselves last and others first— which  we’ve then taken to mean we must not matter. 

For others, the idea that we matter, that we are fundamentally important, is kind of intimidating. Because if we accept the idea that “we matter,” then we’d necessarily have to treat ourselves with more respect and restraint than we’re used to. 

Still others have become so frustrated with their own behavior over time that they’ve developed strong negative opinions about themselves. Their self-esteem— literally the esteem in which we hold ourselves— has taken so many hits, that the very concept of them “mattering” has become less important than the fact that they are angry with and disappointed in themselves. 

Most human beings I’ve ever met have had, at the very least, a complicated relationship with the concept of, “I matter.” 

Many people are afraid that if they paused for a moment to consider the fact that they matter, that they are fundamentally important, that they might be disapproved of by others. 

After all, isn’t it a big arrogant to assert, without qualification, that “I matter?” 

For that matter, who are we to assert that “I matter” without first doing something to PROVE that you matter? (Notice the connotation this has: we only matter IF we do something to EARN that fundamental value.) 

I’m here to tell you that it is neither arrogant, nor presumptuous, nor obnoxious to assert your fundamental value and importance. 

I’m here to tell you you don’t need to perform or otherwise “earn” the “privilege” of mattering. 

I’m here to tell you that if you are alive, if you are reading these words, if you are a human being with a brain, a central nervous system, and an emotional life, that you matter. 

How can we shake all of these complicated, negative associations we have to the concept of “I matter?” 

How can we come to peace with our fundamental value and importance? 

We have to realize that much of the consternation we experience around the idea of “I matter” is simply programming. 

Programming is usually nothing more than messages that have been repeated, over, and over, and over again. 

It doesn’t matter if the messages are true, useful, or kind. 

It doesn’t even particularly matter if we’re actually LISTENING to those messages very closely. 

if a message gets repeated, over and over and over again, we tend to internalize it. 

And make no mistake: there are lots and lots and LOTS of people, institutions, and industries out there in the world who have vested interests in programming you with the mantra “I don’t matter.” 

Advertisers LOVE it when you think you don’t matter— because then they can sell you stuff to make you feel better. 

Some romantic partners prefer you to not have TOO high or stable self-esteem— because people with high, stable self-esteem tend to be harder to manipulate and control. 

Authorities, from parents to the government, often prefer that you not be TOO convinced you have fundamental value— because then you might decide you’re not so much in need of their guidance and resources. 

A fundamental part of your recovery from addiction, a fundamental part of your recovery from anxiety, a fundamental part of your recovery from depression or trauma, is to accept that you have value. 

You having value; you having worth; you fundamentally MATTERING is the cornerstone of building the motivation and the skills to improve your life. 

What has been programmed, can be counter-programmed. 

What has been learned can be un-learned. 

But you’re going to have to take the risk of saying— and potentially believing— two little words: 

I matter. 

 

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The terror– and necessity– of letting ourselves be known.

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A particularly difficult part of many peoples’ recovery is taking the risk of allowing ourselves to be known. 

Most people spend an awful lot of time hiding their true selves. 

Most of us have received lots and lots and LOTS of messages over the years about how we are SUPPOSED to behave. 

We’ve been bludgeoned with “should” after “should” after “should” when it comes to our speech and behavior. 

And most of us— especially those of us who have experienced trauma or abuse— have gotten very, very good at putting up a convincing front when it comes to who we are. 

(Some survivors of extreme developmental trauma have become so good at putting up a convincing front that their personalities have seemed to “split” into different “parts,” the most extreme variation of which is diagnosed as Dissociative Identity Disorder.)

The thing is, when we need help— when we need support putting our lives back together after trauma, or when we need to lift ourselves out of an addiction, or when we need to keep our heads above the water of depression— we often need to drop the front. 

It’s hard for anybody to help us, either emotionally or behaviorally, if we’re unwilling to show them who we really are and what we really need.

I know many therapists— myself included— who have been frustrated and stymied when a patient walks into their office, intent on keeping their defensive shields intact. Intent on giving the therapist what they think the therapist wants to hear. 

Intent on being their “best” selves, the self that they think will get them approval and acceptance…rather than their real selves. 

As long as those defensive shields stay intact, very little work gets done. 

It’s not the facade of you that needs the help. 

It’s the real you, underneath that facade, behind that part, beneath that bubbly or surly exterior, that needs to recover and heal. 

If I can’t see that you, I can’t help you. 

If your recovery or therapy group can’t see that real you, they can’t help you. 

If you can’t see and accept that real you— vulnerabilities, imperfections, and all— you can’t even help you. 

The thing about these covers, these facades that we wear all the time, is: most of the time they are unnecessary. 

Most of the time these facades and covers aren’t keeping us safe in the way we think they are. 

We think they’ll help us not get hurt. They don’t. 

We think they’ll help protect us from difficult feelings and words. They won’t. 

We think that if we keep distance between our real selves and the problems we’re having, maybe we can keep those problems at arm’s length. 

Doesn’t work. 

To heal, we have to let ourselves be known. 

We have to let down our shields. 

We have to let others see us. See our struggle. See our suffering. 

And, yes, see our failings. 

The upside? 

If we take the risk of letting ourselves be known— really known— we can also embrace our strengths. 

We can embrace our power. (Yes, you do have power…no matter how it feels.) 

We can start to enhance, in a real way, our resources. (Yes, you do have resources…no matter how it feels.) 

We can finally, finally, start to heal. 

(Yes, you can heal…no matter how it feels.) 

You don’t have to let yourself be totally known, all at once, to everybody you meet. You should treat self-disclosure just like any sensitive matter— you should disclose and trust intelligently, carefully, intentionally. 

Letting yourself be known doesn’t have to be a black and white, all or nothing proposition. 

But it does need to happen. 

You can’t heal if “you” don’t show up for the process.

The risk is worth it. 

 

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52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project, Week 4: “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor

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“Don’t Shoot The Dog” is Karen Pryor’s 1984 book laying out the fundamentals of operant behavioral conditioning for non-scientists, with an emphasis on practical applications in the everyday world. 

Like most of the books I’m reviewing in the “52 Self-Help Books in 2019” project, I’ve had this paperback on my shelf forever. I think I came across it in a thrift store (by the way, guys, thrift stores are absolute gold mines of secondhand self-help paperbacks for, like, a quarter apiece). I remember being enticed and intrigued by the cover blurb, a quote of praise from none other than one of the most badass American psychologists ever, B.F. Skinner. 

B.F. Skinner was one of the most fascinating figures in American psychology. At a time when clinical psychology was dominated by the psychodynamic theories of Freud, which attributed most human behavior to unconscious sexual and aggressive drives, Skinner sought to get more practical and hands-on in explaining why we do what we do. Skinner strongly believed that, insofar as we can’t directly observe, say, the id, ego, or superego, they weren’t the most useful things to study and speculate about. 

Behavior, however, is almost always observable and often precisely quantifiable. Skinner thus centered his experimental efforts on what happens to an animal during and immediately after behavior occurs, and the impact those happenings have on the potential for that behavior to occur again. His work evolved into a uniquely American approach called behaviorism, which, as its name implies, concerns itself with the prediction and control of behavior. 

In “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” Pryor, an animal (and people) trainer, sets out to explain to her audience how they might practically apply the principles of behavioral psychology in their everyday lives. She points out that we’re frequently attempting to influence the behavior of the animals around us— including other people— and that there’s nothing inherently manipulative or exploitative about this; it’s just the way society works. 

We want our spouses, our kids, our subordinates (or supervisors), our pets, and almost every other living thing around us to do certain things and refrain from doing other things. Thus, why animals do what they do, and what we can do to influence them, is a very practical matter to understand. 

Pryor points out that most people, in trying to influence others, clumsily rely upon variations of punishment. We yell; we sulk; we withhold; we lash out; all in response to behavior that has already happened, in hopes that we can keep that behavior from happening again. 

Alternatively, we tend to rely on variations of bribery— promising payoffs to behavior that hasn’t yet happened yet, but we want to happen— hoping that we can induce the people and animals around us to do something we’d prefer. 

Both punishment and bribery, Pryor maintains, have absolutely lousy track records, both in the laboratory and real life. 

The problem with punishment is largely that it happens after behavior has occurred (in the case of the criminal justice system, often times months of years after the fact). Similarly, the problem with bribery is that it happens before behavior has occurred. In both cases, we’re counting on the organism in question to connect, in their minds, the punishment or bribery with behavior that is not currently happening. 

The thing is, every scrap of research we have on how behavior works tells us, that’s not how effective conditioning happens. 

Effective conditioning happens when the organism that is behaving can alter currently occurring behavior in response to the good thing or bad thing that it is evoking. 

Thus: if you want punishment to stick— it needs to happen WHILE the behavior is happening.

Similarly, if you want reinforcement to stick— it needs to happen WHILE the behavior is happening. 

There needs to be no question, in the organism’s nervous system, what behavior the good thing or bad thing they’re experiencing is in response to. 

Reinforcement or punishment, in other words, need to carry INFORMATION to the animal about whether they should keep doing what they’re CURRENTLY doing— not whether they should do something in the future or whether they should have done something in the past. 

Everybody with me? 

Pryor goes on the note that, between reinforcement and punishment, it is reinforcement that is by far the more effective conditioner. The research establishes that it is far, far more effective (not to mention, usually more practical, ethical, and pleasant) to condition behavior through reinforcement than through punishment. 

Pryor then spends the rest of her concisely written book laying out the principles of effective conditioning via reinforcement. As it turns out, there are rules for how and why reinforcement works— which very few parents, bosses, or pet owners have troubled themselves to learn, as it turns out. 

Pryor introduces us to the concept of “stimulus control.” There are certain reinforcers that are “unconditioned stimuli,” things that animals tend to naturally like. Treats and attention are examples of unconditioned stimuli— i.e., stimuli that need no conditioning for an animal to crave or enjoy. 

However, it’s not always practical to hand out treats and belly rubs every time you want to reinforce a behavior. The solution to this is to pair, via classical conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus with a “conditioned stimulus”— i.e., making a nose, giving a hand signal, flashing a light, or something else the organism can easily register every time you offer up the unconditioned stimulus. 

Soon you’ll find the organism responding to the conditioned stimulus as readily as it responded to the unconditioned stimulus— and, viola, you’ve established stimulus control. 

Now, you can reinforce a behavior you want to encourage while it’s actually happening via your conditioned stimulus. That is, when your cat is doing what you want it to do, you don’t have to give it a treat right then; you can use your cool little clicker, the sound of which you’d already linked to treats. 

The research tells us that, for whatever reason, once animals make the link in their heads between the unconditioned stimulus (treats) and the conditioned stimulus (clicker), they’ll respond to the conditioned stimulus (clicker) just as readily as the unconditioned stimulus (treats). 

This leads us to the concept of behavioral “shaping.” As it turns out, we can’t always get an animal to do exactly what we want it to do, so we can reinforce it for doing what we want. The solution to this is to reward the animal for getting closer and closer to the behavior we want, and reinforcing each step along the way with our conditioned stimulus. 

As you reinforce the baby steps, the animal gets closer and closer to doing what you want it to do— all without expecting too much of it at any given time. Viola: behavior shaping. 

The research shows that behavior shaping with reinforcement via conditioned stimuli speeds up learning exponentially…and is way, way, WAY more effective than bribery or punishment will ever be. 

Pryor tells us about “variable schedules of reinforcement.” All this means is that, in teaching an animal a new behavior via reinforcement, you don’t need to reinforce EVERY correct response after awhile. It’s good to mix it up— keep reinforcing correct responses, but instead of reinforcing every single one, vary the intervals between reinforcement. 

This will keep the animal interested and energetic in its responses, insofar as it never knows when, exactly, the treats are coming. 

As it turns out, animals that are reinforced every time tend to become lazy and complacent— their motivation dips as they realize they’ve figured this puzzle out. 

Pryor offers practical tips for behavior shaping, and most of them boil down to more or less common sense. Keep your expectations within range of the animal’s capability. Try to teach only one part of a behavior at a time, so the animal doesn’t get confused. Know where you’re going, so when the animal learns what you want it to learn you’re not scrambling to figure out what to teach them next. Be willing to be flexible and responsive to what the animal is actually doing, rather than what you wish it was doing. Be consistent and patient, try to end training sessions on a high/encouraging note, and don’t be afraid to go back to basics with the animal when you need to. 

In one of my favorite bits, Pryor explains what she calls “The Training Game,” which you can do with your friends. Send one friend out of the room, designate a “trainer,” and decide what you want to train the subject to do. Have the subject return to the room and start doing stuff; reinforce the subject (with something like a bell or a whistle) when the subject gets closer to what you want them to do, thus “reinforcing” them. See how long it takes you to “shape” the behavior of the subject, using only reinforcement. 

(If you’ve ever played the “warmer…warmer…colder…colder…warmer…warmer…HOT!” game with someone— that’s a variant of The Training Game. Who knew you were ALREADY using behavior shaping via reinforcement, just like a real behavioral psychologist?!?)

Pryor wraps up her book withs some tips on how to condition an animal OUT of behavior they’re doing that you don’t want them to do, and it’s an interesting collection of techniques. 

Turns out, you can train an animal to perform a different behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior; or you can reinforce the animal for doing anything BUT the undesirable behavior; or, perhaps most cleverly, you can actually condition the animal to perform the undesirable behavior on cue from…then just never give the cue. 

So…what’s the bottom line here? 

I very much believe in positive reinforcement. I completely buy Pryor’s contention that it works way, way better than bribery, punishment, or even negative reinforcement (introducing a negative stimulus that the animal can make go away by performing the behavior you want). 

If we lived in a world that was completely and only governed by the power of positive reinforcement, I’d be all on board. 

The problem is: we don’t always have access to things other organisms find reinforcing. 

Without access to treats, you can’t condition an animal to a conditioned stimulus. 

Without access to a conditioned stimulus, you can’t reinforce as a behavior is occurring. 

Seriously, think of more than two things you can use to reinforce an animal. You basically have food and attention. Can you think of more than that? I can’t off the top of my head. 

Now, think of more than two things you can use to condition a human. You have food, maybe attention, MAYBE sex. And you certainly can’t use all three of those with any given human you want to condition. 

I have no quibble with the behavioral science that Pryor is describing. I think the principles of operant conditioning and reinforcement theory are important for every human to understand. Breaking free of our reliance on punishment and bribery is a highly desirable outcome for MOST people who want to influence behavior or any animal, human or pet. 

That said: you’re going to have to get creative and observant with those reinforcers. 

“Don’t Shoot the Dog” is a quick read, and Pryor is a very straightforward and conversational writer. It’s a good book. 

Its only constraints are the constraints of reinforcement theory itself. 

Welcome to the real world. 

How to speak your own (emotional) language.

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Get real, and get clear, about how to talk to yourself. 

Many self-help books and therapists tell us to mind how we talk to ourselves. They correctly point out that how we talk to ourselves becomes our programming.

Just like slogans concocted by advertisers and repeated day in and day out on TV and radio and social media become embedded in our brains, what we say to ourselves, about ourselves— about our abilities, about our worthiness, about our futures— become embedded in our brains, too. 

So we’re told to talk to ourselves in ways that empower ourselves. 

We’re told to come up with positive affirmations and confident declarations that have a chance to counter-program all the negativity and pessimism about there. 

I was told this again and again in books I read and seminars I attended and lectures I listened to. Affirmations are important. Positive self-dialogue was key. 

All of which made it very frustrating that, whenever I tried to come up with positive affirmations or constructive self-dialogue to say and repeat to myself, it felt completely idiotic. 

I tried, hard, to mimic the affirmations and positive statements I found in the self-help literature. I even went through a phase where I was writing affirming statements, over and over again, hoping that they’d sink into my unconscious and take root. 

It all felt very forced. 

Only now do I understand why: I wasn’t talking to myself in a way that I could hear and understand. 

We all have our own languages we speak. I’m not talking about English versus Spanish versus Russian. 

I’m talking about how we speak whatever language we speak. 

I’m talking about the metaphors we use and respond to. 

I’m even talking about the cadences and vocabulary we use in our own heads. 

The affirmations I was copying out of books didn’t work for me, because they didn’t sound like things I’d say. It wasn’t just the content of the affirmations; it was that they were phrased in ways that sounded awkward and pompous to my ears and my brain. 

If you’re gong to talk to yourself in a way that can change how you think, feel, and behave, you have to talk to yourself in a way that you can hear, process, and derive value from. 

Don’t assume that anybody else’s affirmations or scripts or slogans will necessarily resonate with you. 

Pay attention to how you talk to yourself— or even better, how those people who seem to be able to reach you and influence you talk. 

Get clear on what kinds of language, metaphors, colloquialisms, and statements speak to YOU. 

Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time trying to make other people’s words and ideas fit into your brain. 

One of the reasons why 12 step programs are so successful (when they are successful, anyway) is because so much of their wisdom is easily reducible to short, catchy slogans. 

For many addicts, the concise, colloquial 12-step slogans— “easy does it,” “one day at a time,” “stinkin’ thinkin’ leads to drinkin,”, “live life on life’s terms”— speak to how they talk, listen, hear, and understand, more easily and naturally than the jargon of professional therapists. There’s a reason why a subset of addicts do better in 12-step than in therapy. 

You are constantly deluged with a lot of people— including me!— telling you how you can think, feel, and behave better. Many of these people have very specific ideas about what you should say to yourself, how you should say it, and what sorts of responses all of this should elicit from you. 

Don’t worry so much about what they think you should say to yourself. 

Get interested in what works for you. 

Keep track of quotes and slogans that particularly speak to you. 

Maybe music speaks to you more than spoken words. 

Maybe it’s poetry. 

Whatever it is, pay attention to what moves you, what gets your attention, what you can understand and process. 

Learn what “language” you speak when it comes to impacting your feelings and behavior. 

Speaking the language is crucial if you want to truly communicate with anyone— including (especially!) yourself. 

 

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“Reality” is not just the potholes.

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Some people cling to their relentless negative focus in the name of “realism.” 

They feel that if they are not focusing on the most negative aspect of a situation, they are somehow in denial. 

In their world, emphasizing the negative is the only reliable way of “keeping it real.” 

If you’re a follower of my work, you know that I have strong feelings about the connection between reality orientation and self-esteem. I absolutely believe that self-esteem and self-respect are damaged when we don’t acknowledge reality. Lying to ourselves and others makes it impossible to respect or esteem ourselves. 

That said: “negative” does not automatically mean “realistic.” 

The truth of the matter is, just like we can unrealistically inflate the positive aspects of a situation and arrive at a fantasy of everything being great, we can also inflate the negative aspects of a situation and arrive at an equally false fantasy of everything being terrible. 

What we focus on absolutely impacts our mood. It’s the MAIN thing that impacts our mood, for that matter. 

It’s true that we need to be careful in how we perceive and examine the world. There are many occasions when we’re going to be tempted to block certain things from our awareness to maintain our own comfort. Denial is absolutely destructive to our ability to function effectively in the real world. 

But we need to acknowledge that, just because we’re “seeing” things we’d rather not see, doesn’t mean we need to obsess over those things to the point of anxiety and depression. 

A solid, reality-oriented view of the world is gong to acknowledge both things we like, and things we don’t like. 

Real life is rarely as black and white as “everything sucks” or “everything’s great.” 

If we really want to build a life in which we feel good and function well, we need to scan our environment not just for things that are wrong or need to be improved; we need to consciously, intentionally look for things that are going well, things we approve of, things we like. 

Finding things around us that we need to correct or fix is important. But it’s also important to find things that are functioning well, because we can build on those successes. 

The street on which I live in Chicago is notorious for terrible potholes. 

(A lot of streets are in Chicago, actually. I’ve twice blown tires on the streets around here.) 

Chicago is a huge, vibrant, complex city full of a mass of vibrant, complex people. But if I only focus on the potholes on my street in the north side of Chicago, I’m going to have an impression of Chicago that is entirely about frustration, inconvenience, and danger. 

The most realistic worldview acknowledges both: there are awesome people, places, and things in Chicago that can enhance my life; and there are also canyon-sized potholes on some streets that I need to be careful of.

Life is exactly like this. 

If we only focus on the potholes, we will walk around with attitudes that suck and moods that do not support us in our goals. 

If we only focus on the awesomeness, we will drive too fast and be unprepared for the potholes when they jump out in front of our cars. 

Remember that “reality” is not about getting positive or seeing he negative. It’s about acknowledging and accepting what your senses and experience are telling you about reality— without demanding that it be different. 

Acceptance of reality is tougher than it sounds. 

We don’t like to accept what we don’t like. 

Sometimes we don’t even like to accept what we DO like, because it can make us anxious— we get all up in our heads about, what if what we DO like goes away? 

Relax. 

Look around. 

Look at your life; look at your circumstances; look at your resources. 

See them for what they are. 

Note the potholes. 

But also note the amazing city around the potholes…and all the opportunities that it offers you. 

Life’s not all potholes. It only feels that way when we blow a tire. 

 

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Book review: “Self-Defeating Behaviors: Free Yourself From The Habits, Compulsions, Feelings and Attitudes that Hold You Back” by Milton Cudney and Robert Hardy

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Everybody sabotages themselves. Everybody. And almost no one understands with much clarity WHY they behave in self-defeating ways…especially over, and over, and over again. 

This is the dilemma Cudney and Hardy, both practicing therapists, set out to address in this book: what a full cycle of self-defeating behavior looks like, how and why it gets underway, and how we minimize and disown the prices we pay for our self-defeating behavior so it’s likely to repeat. 

Their model of why people behave in self-defeating ways begins with lessons we learn and conclusions we form about life in moments of distress (actually, they have a whole theory about how moments of distress themselves are generated— a sweeping theory about how cultural systems interact with intrapersonal systems in toxic ways to produce “toxic” results— but, for the sake of brevity, it’ll suffice to say that, for a number of reasons: we humans experience distress). 

According to the authors’ hypothesis, we experience distress, and from that distress we form conclusions about life and the world, and we behave accordingly. And our behavioral choices in our moments of distress work, at least once. Well, I mean ,they “work” to the extent that our anxiety or distress in that moment is, in fact, diminished. So, our brains file the particular conclusion about life away as “valid,” and the behavior that flowed from that conclusion as useful and likely to be repeated. 

Oy. If only it were that simple. 

The problem with all of the above? Sometimes we’ve actually formed invalid conclusions about life. We’ve misinterpreted the fact that our behavior reduced our distress in the moment to mean that “this behavior works, thus the confusion that informs it is valid.” We’ve mistaken an anxiety-reducing behavior for a truly effective behavior— and, what’s more, we’ve filed all of this away unconsciously, because seriously, who needs to devote conscious attention to such a supposedly straightforward conclusion? 

Thus: cycles of self-defeating behavior are born. 

When we’ve drawn concussions about life and the world that aren’t valid— but we’ve done so unconsciously, thus limiting our opportunities for actually evaluating those conclusions— we’ve set ourselves up to repeat less-than-adaptive behavior that follows from those conclusions, over and over again. Moreover, the authors state, invalid conclusions about life and the world give rise to “mythical fears,” i.e., fears about what calamities might befall us if we DON’T react to life with the self-defeating behaviors informed by our faulty conclusions. 

All of this happening unconsciously, you understand. 

I know, I know. It gets a little complicated. Let’s take an example. 

Let’s say, you’re treated unfairly by someone out there in the world. Someone’s mean to you. You respond to this meanness by becoming temporarily withdrawn and avoidant, thus reducing your distress in that moment. Problem solved, right? 

In this model of behavior, the authors would argue that you form and unconsciously file away a conclusion about the world: “Other people are going to be mean to me.” The behavior that flows from that, becoming withdrawn and avoidant, seems logical, given that conclusion. Problem is, becoming withdrawn and avoidant will eventually turn into a behavior that will leave you alone, lonely, and unsupported— a truly self-defeating behavior. 

The conclusion you’ve drawn— “other people are going to be mean to me”— is, in fact, an overgeneralization. The truth is, some people will be mean to you, some people won’t. 

But since your behavior of becoming withdrawn and avoidant solved your anxiety problem in the above example, you don’t bother to examine the soundness of this conclusion. You assume it’s valid— it must be, if I’m feeling better, right?— and you file it away…thus setting the stage for you to play out the behavior of withdrawing and avoiding again, and again, and again, because of the mythical fear generated by this conclusion (i.e., if I DON’T withdraw and avoid, I’m going to be hurt, because other people are always mean, right?). 

There are a few moving parts to the theory, but if you run through it a few times, it clicks. Cudney and Hardy’s theory does hang together. 

Cudney and Hardy then take it all a step further and say that, when people come around to feeling the pain generated by their self-defeating choices, most choose not to examine the faulty conclusions that gave rise to mythical fears that facilitated self-defeating choices.

Rather, the authors say, most people go down the road of minimizing and disowning the prices they pay for their poor choices. Because anything’s better than having to examine the conclusions you form about life and other people, at least when mythical fears are plaguing you. 

So that’s the basic model. Distress leads to anxiety-reducing behavior, which leads to drawing inaccurate conclusion, which leads to mythical fear, which leads to repetition of self-defeating behavior, which leads to minimizing and disowning of prices, which reinforces/gives no reason to examine inaccurate conclusions. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Everybody with me? 

After laying out this model, the authors spend much of the book examining the exact nature of how self-defeating behaviors get played out. 

For example, they make a distinction between a broad self-defeating behavior and the specific inner and outer “techniques” used to carry them out. Using the above example: if the broad behavior is alienation and avoidance, the specific inner techniques may be the cognitive distortions you use to distance yourself from people; the outer techniques may entail actually physically avoiding people and withdrawing from company. 

The authors also dive into specific ways people go about minimizing and disowning the consequences of their poor choices— letting others pay the price, pretending to “confess” to their poor choices with full intention of engaging in them again, and so forth. The authors offer example after example of people who firmly refuse to examine the conclusions and fears underlying their behavior, and who instead externalize the living crap out of every poor choice they make. 

What to do about any of it? 

Well, cut it out. 

Assume responsibility for your choices. 

Sound simplistic? Eh, kinda. I do think one of the weaknesses of this otherwise incredibly thorough, very readable self-help book is that the authors conceptualize almost every single form of self-defeating behavior you can imagine as a “self-defeating behavior” that an be analyzed and treated according to their model. They kind of pooh-pooh the idea that people feel things and react to them in the moment, instead taking an almost conspiratorial approach to why-we-do-what-we-do. 

The short version of what the authors recommend anybody do about their self-defeating behaviors are, search for your mythical fears, and then trace them back to your faulty conclusions. For example: if there is a behavior that’s kicking your butt, ask yourself: what am I afraid of happening if I DON’T do this? This, ideally, will lead you back to the conclusion that you drew but filed away— a conclusion that you can reality test and eventually dislodge, thus dissolving your mythical fear in the process. 

In other words: you do cognitive-behavioral therapy with yourself. (Which is fitting, given that one of the jacket blurbs comes from the late Albert Ellis, father or Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy.) 

Likewise, in very CBT-style, the authors recommend monitoring your self-defeating behaviors to get a clear look at what their triggers are, as a means of further clarifying and uncovering the faulty conclusions and mythical fears those behaviors are a response to. The overall idea is that, when these mythical fears and faulty conclusions are exposed to conscious examination (instead of remaining filed away in the unconscious, where they have been residing), they’ll collapse under their own irrational weight. 

Then, of course, the authors recommend replacing the specific self-defeating techniques with which you used to carry out self-defeating behaviors with “winning behaviors,” i.e, alternatives that support your long-term goals and values. The authors counsel the reader to approach this project with patience and self-compassion— after all, you’ve been reflexively responding to mythical fears for a long time, your inner self is going to need some support if you’re going to move forward. 

I have to say, this is a well-put together book. In contrast to last week’s book, Jeff Schwartz’s “Brain Lock,” which felt like it was dragging out pamphlet-length material to fill a book, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of wasted words or space in Cudney and Hardy’s book. 

I like how they recommend not just “STOPPING” a dysfunctional behavior, Bob Newhart-style, but rather replacing those behaviors with behaviors that can fill that vacuum with goals-and-values directed activity. I mean, it’s never quite that easy, as anyone who has ever tried to kick a bad habit can attest, but in principle it’s plenty sound. 

I think the authors maaaaayyyyy go a bit far in conceptualizing the mopey behaviors that accompany depression or the avoidant behaviors that accompany PTSD as “self defeating behaviors” that are motivated by mythical fears deriving from invalid conclusions about life. I think there’s room for the idea that, a lot of the time, people just feel something and then respond in instinctive ways that aren’t necessarily driven by labyrinthine  webs of conclusions and inferences (i.e., I don’t think you have to have derived a false conclusion about life to respond avoidantly when you’re sad or anxious; I think those are pretty universal reactions). What’s more, I think there’s a danger of getting into unhealthy self-blame if you send patients delving deeply for how THEY have misinterpreted the facts of reality when they respond— fairly normally, I’d say— to painful experiences. 

I’m not convinced every reaction is a choice, in other words. 

All that said: I think this is an elegant, novel model through which to help understand frustrating self-defeating behavior. I wish more attention was paid to self-sabotage as a concept, insofar as the vast majority of people who ever find themselves seeking therapy struggle with it. 

Thumbs up from the Doc on this one.