None of this is “fair.” And that fact does not matter.

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There are absolutely lots of things about recovery that are not “fair.” 

It’s not fair that some people need to devote significant time and energy in their lives to simply functioning day to day, while other people do not. 

It’s not fair that some people have awful, inhumane things happen to them. 

It’s not fair that some people are abused and neglected by people who are supposed to love and care for them. 

It’s not fair that some people have biological dispositions toward addictions or compulsions. 

It’s not fair that some people are wired for depression or anxiety. 

It’s not fair that bad people are often not called to account for the destructive things they’ve done. 

There are lots and lots and lots of things that are not fair. I completely get it. I wish things were different— that life was fairer. 

I wish the people I’ve worked with as a therapist, and the people who read and follow my work on the Internet, didn’t struggle with what they struggle with. I’ve watched some of the coolest, nicest, best people I know labor under burdens that were categorically unfair. 

Nobody deserves to struggle the way some of us struggle. 

Absolutely nobody deserves to have been abused or neglected— let alone to have to carry those burdens forward in the form of PTSD and its associated challenges. 

The thing is: the fact that life is not fair, and because we shouldn’t have to struggle with the things we struggle with…does not mean that we have the option of opting out of the work associated with recovery. 

That is to say: I agree with you. You shouldn’t have this burden to bear. You shouldn’t have to do this work. 

But you do. 

We have the life we have. We have the biology we have, we have the history we have, we have the genes we have. 

We have the burdens we have, right here, right now. It’s not fair— but it is reality. 

We have to deal with life on life’s terms— not on terms that we prefer or define. 

If we get wrapped around the axle about what’s “fair” or not…we are going to lose time and ground that we cannot afford to lose. 

You can feel whatever way you want to feel about the unfairness of life, and the unfairness of your situation specifically. You can be angry about it, you can be sad about it, you can be numb to it. 

But do not let what is “fair” or “not fair” get in your head about how hard you’re willing to work in recovery. 

When we define what we are and aren’t willing to do or explore in our recovery, we need to focus on results, not on what is “fair.” 

None of this is fair. Addiction, depression, PTSD, ADHD. It all sucks. 

But we can’t let that define how we respond to our challenges. 

We have the challenges we have. 

We’re dealt the hand we are dealt. We cannot control that. It’s not fair, but it is reality. 

It’s up to us how to play that hand. 

We need to be emphatic and purposeful in how we do that— and not get derailed or preoccupied by our belief that what’s being asked of us is not “fair.” 

 

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Handling impulse control problems in the real world.

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A fundamental skill most of us need to work on is recovering from something we did or said impulsively, that may have temporarily set us back. 

Everybody has problems with impulse control sometimes. 

I don’t care if you are extremely smart, extremely disciplined, or extremely well-intentioned: you sometimes have problems controlling what you do or say on impulse. 

It may be the case that people who are a little further along in their recovery have lapses of impulse control that are fewer and farther between than people just starting out…but it’s absolutely the case that even people who are extremely advanced in their recovery still have moments where they do or say things that temporarily set them back. 

It’s DEFINITELY not a matter of only “bad” or “immature” having trouble with impulse control. 

EVERYBODY has at least periodic problems with impulse control. (Even me!) 

The reason why we never fully get past having impulse control problems is, no matter how disciplined we get, no matter how developed our coping skills become, no matter how stable our moods and behavior becomes as a result of dedicated therapy work, we still have these sympathetic nervous systems that can be triggered into “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions when we feel threatened. 

When we do or say something on impulse, it’s usually because we’re feeling threatened on some level. 

The way this works neuropsycholoically is, we’ve been blindsided by a trigger that we haven’t fully had the opportunity to process on a conscious level— it’s registered on what cognitive psychologists call the “preconscious” level, outside of our ordinary “top level” awareness. 

We’ve been exposed to something that our brain recognizes as a threat that needs to be dealt with RIGHT NOW— something that we do not have the luxury of thinking through and responding to in a measured way. 

Very often, after we’ve reacted to the perceived threat— after we’ve said or done something quickly and emphatically—  only THEN do we have the opportunity to analyze and really consider what has ACTUALLY happened, and what an appropriate response would ACTUALLY look like in the real world…but by then, we’ve already done or said the impulsive thing. 

And we’re often kicking ourselves for it. 

So how do we deal constructively with the fact that we’ve said or done something inappropriate on impulse? 

First thing’s first: extend yourself understanding. 

You didn’t mean to do or say something hurtful or counterproductive. 

You reacted in the moment to what your nervous system was telling you. It’s not as if you sat down and made a considered decision that reflected your goals and values; you literally did the opposite of that. 

Give yourself a break. You do nobody any favors by beating yourself up for having said or done something impulsive. 

But, after you’ve given yourself a break and met your own behavior with understanding and compassion: it’s vitally important to own it and own up to it. 

It’s vitally important to repair any damage you might have inflicted. 

It’s vitally important that a lapse of impulse control be framed, understood, and responded to as exactly that: a lapse in impulse control…not a definitive statement of your goals and values. 

In this thing called recovery, you’re going to get your brain and nervous system sending you lots of signals— and it’s important to understand that many of those signals are a response to trauma you’ve been through. 

Your brain and nervous system are trying to do you favors. 

The fact that sometimes they don’t is a bummer…but it’s super important you develop the willingness and ability to compensate for when your symptoms send you off on the wrong path. 

Don’t beat yourself up for having problems with impulse control. 

Rather, get in the habit of acknowledging it when it happens, owning it, repairing damage when necessary…and getting back on track. 

 

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Don’t believe everything you feel.

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How you feel is not a reliable indicator of what you can do. 

We’re going to not feel capable of doing lots of things…that we totally can do. 

Our feelings are important— they contain information for us that shouldn’t be ignored— but they are not fail-safe guides to our capabilities. 

This is why it drives me UP A WALL when I see personal growth teachers instruct their students that their feelings are NEVER WRONG, or their intuition is ALWAYS ON POINT. 

That’s simply not the case. 

Our feelings are designed to raise flags for us. They set off alarms. They bring our attention to things out there in the world we need to pay attention to, or else we might experience negative consequences. 

But the fact that our feelings bring attention to some things doesn’t necessarily mean that our feelings have accurately gauged how dangerous or important those things are to us. 

Your feelings will sometimes tell you you can’t handle something. 

Your feelings will sometimes tell you something is beyond your capacity to do or handle. 

Your feelings will sometimes tell you that pain you are experiencing at one particular moment is unbearable— that if you don’t escape this pain, you’re going to somehow break. 

These feelings shouldn’t be ignored— but they should not be uncritically accepted as true, either. 

I just ran my fourth marathon. Around mile fifteen or so of any marathon, trust me, you’re going to have some intense feelings. 

You’re going to feel like you need to collapse. 

You’re going to feel like you need to throw up. 

You’re going to feel like signing up to run this stupid race may be the worst decision you’ve ever made. 

None of those things you feel at mile 15 of a marathon are true, mind you…but believe me, they will feel true— CONVINCINGLY true— at the moment. 

When I hit this point, I remember vividly, I was alone out there on the course. There weren’t any runners in my immediate vicinity; it was just me out there on the road, with the sun, the wind, my own thoughts, and my own footsteps. 

Remember: your feelings have a tendency to become outsized, to become exaggerated and dramatized, when you’re alone. 

Remember as well: your feelings will often point you toward the worst case scenario, rather than the most likely scenario. 

The reason for this is straightforward: our feelings are only interested in our survival. They want us staying the hell away from things that might end our existence— and they will always err on the side of caution in this project. 

Understand: this doesn’t mean your feelings are NEVER right. 

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to what your feelings or intuition say. 

But what it does mean is that you shouldn’t make your feelings your sole source of information or decision-making. 

Your gut instincts may well be superb. But they are still not designed to be the only way you evaluate what to do next. 

When you are in the midst of a project that will test your endurance— like a marathon— don’t believe everything you feel. 

This is true in recovery as well as in marathons. 

Your feelings are valuable. They are also drama queens. 

Don’t rely on them exclusively. 

Use your feelings in combination with your thinking, with your experience, with your spirituality, and with your training. 

That’s how you finish a race. 

 

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‘Thinking’ is not the enemy of ‘doing.’

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It may be true that some people get so caught up with thinking that they get paralyzed— they spend so much time and wattage thinking that they neglect the “doing” part of life. 

It’s true that we need to find some way to nudge ourselves out of analysis paralysis and to take action when action is what is needed. 

The solution to this problem, though, isn’t to “think less.”

It always kills me when I see a personal growth “expert” exhort their followers to “stop thinking” and “start doing.” 

Look around you. 

Look at our political leaders (on all sides of the spectrum— this is emphatically NOT a partisan political statement). 

Look at the mishmash of emotion-driven hot takes that comprises your social media feed. 

Do you REALLY think that what we need is “less thinking?”

As a therapist, I can tell you that 80% of my day— if not more— is spent helping people develop tools and skills so they WON’T act impulsively. 

Impulse-driven, emotion-fueled behaviors, driven by half-baked decision-making, ruin people’s lives. 

“Stop thinking and start doing” is terrible advice, usually offered by people who want you to buy something they’re selling— but who don’t want you to think too deeply about your decision to purchase their product or not, because, well, that makes their numbers go down. 

“Make decisions quickly, even if you have limited information” is also terrible advice. It’s advice usually thrown around by people who do not have the emotional management skills to sit with uncertainty for a period of time while they make an intelligent, strategically sound decision. 

The solution to analysis paralysis is not “less thinking” and “more doing.” 

Thinking and action are designed to complement and support each other. 

People who are stuck in their heads at the expense of getting out there and “doing” usually aren’t thinking too much. 

To the contrary, what’s usually happening is, they are anxious about what might happen when they start doing— which is a problem of DISTORTED thinking, not “too much” thinking. 

(If the personal growth “expert” I have in mind was ever a therapist, he’d know the difference.)

You can’t just tell an anxious person to quit thinking and do the thing. They’re not doing the thing for a reason— their entire bodies and brains are resisting their attempts to do the thing. 

What needs to happen is the development of specific skills and tools that will help the person manage what they’re feeling, so they can go out and do the thing. 

And guess what anxiety management requires MORE of, not LESS? 

That’s right: thinking. 

We need our thinking caps. 

We need our brain turned on so we can know how to talk to ourselves. 

We need our brain turned on so we can evaluate opportunities verses costs and risks. 

We need our brain turned on so we can formulate a reasonable plan for what happens if our risk DOESN’T pay off. 

If we buy into the “think less, do more” approach, we’re not going to have ANY of those tools at our disposal. We’ll be left in a position where we turned our brain off and acted impulsively— we made a quick decision based on limited information— and now we’re paying a price. 

I don’t want you to “quit thinking and start doing.” 

I want you to develop skills and tools so that your thinking supports intelligent, considered behavior choices. 

“Thinking” and “doing” are not mutually exclusive. They’re designed to work together. 

A lot of destruction has been wrought by people who haven’t taken the time to “think” before they “do.” 

Don’t be one of those people. 

 

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Making mistakes doesn’t make us “bad people. But we do have to own up to them.

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Owning up to our own less-than-ideal behavior does not have to mean condemning ourselves as terrible, incompetent or evil. 

We can acknowledge times when our behavior has fallen short of our own standards, or when our behavior has been harmful to someone else, or when our behavior wasn’t appropriate to the situation for whatever reason…without turning it into an opportunity to fundamentally  condemn ourselves as people. 

If we are to build healthy, realistic self-esteem, it is VITAL that we learn to make this distinction. 

The world is not as straightforward as, “good people do good, competent things; bad people do evil, incompetent things.” 

There are absolutely times when people whose hearts are in the right place do things that have negative, destructive consequences. 

Just like there are absolutely times when people most of us would consider “bad” have behaved in ways that, for whatever reason, happened to be exactly what the situation called for at the time— that is, when “bad” people have done “good” things. 

In our culture, we have this problem: we think we are our behavior, all the time, every time.

We fall into the trap of thinking that a person’s outward behavior is a concise, accurate summation of who that person is— how “good” or “bad” they are, how competent or incompetent they are. 

It’s just not that simple. 

People are complex. 

Behavior is what psychologists call “overdetermined”— that is, there are a lot of factors that go into why we say what we say and do what we do. 

We very much need to keep this in mind…especially when it comes to evaluating ourselves and our own behavior. 

Because there absolutely are times when we’ve dropped the ball. All of us. 

There absolutely are times when we’ve said the wrong thing at the wrong time. That’s happened to literally everybody. 

There absolutely are times when our behavior, no matter how well-intentioned, had negative consequences. It’s happened to everyone at some point in our lifetimes, and it will likely happen again. 

If we go around judging ourselves— our worth, our efficacy, our basic competence, our basic morality— based on those moments in our lives when we’ve said or done the objectively wrong thing, we’re going to form an impression of ourselves that is not only unnecessarily negative…it’s probably highly distorted. 

“Good” people, in my book, own their behavior— even when its consequences have been negative. 

But the only way we can learn to consistently own our behavior is if we get away from this idea that “good” behavior equals “good” people, and “bad” behavior equals “bad” people. 

If we hang on to that rigid mindset of good and bad…then what incentive does anybody have to own up to their own less-than-ideal behavior? 

They won’t do it. 

They’ll try to duck and dodge, deny and disown. 

They’ll try to hide their mistakes rather than living up to them and fixing them. 

We can’t create a world where the standard reaction to “bad” or ineffective behavior is to run away from it. 

But if we’re going to create a world where people feel safe and able to live up to their behavior, we need to embrace this idea that “good,” effective people can sometimes do “bad,” ineffective things. 

We ned to take the “sting” and stigma away from making mistakes. 

We need to acknowledge that people can change…if we give them the opportunity to. 

And we need to embrace the fact that, whatever happened in the past, we can’t change it by running away from it…we can only change it by acknowledging it, by acknowledging its real world effects (even the painful ones!), and moving forward with eyes wide open. 

 

 

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Of course we’re weak at times. So?

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We are all weak at times. 

There’s no need to deny or sugar coat it. Of course we’re weak sometimes. 

I run marathons. I can tell you without any question, I’m weak after running 26 miles. 

I’m weak in my body, I’m weak in the mind, and I’m weak in the spirit at that point. 

There is absolutely no shame in weakness. We human beings are actually DESIGNED to be weak sometimes, and strong at other times. 

Our relative levels of strength and weakness at any given time do not have to do with our fundamental character. 

Rather, hey have to do with the level of training we’ve done, the amount and quality of rest we’ve had, and the amount and quality of nutrition we’ve fed our bodies and minds. 

Many, many people make the mistake of generalizing a moment or period of relative weakness to themselves as a person. 

Because they either felt weak or WERE weak at a particular point, they make the leap to labeling themselves as a “weak person” who cannot withstand the stresses of everyday life. 

This type of generalization is what cognitive therapists correctly call distorted thinking. 

It’s thinking that is unnecessarily black and white, and which leads to anxiety and depression…none of which is necessary, because these are the exact types of thoughts that do not hold up when we learn to scrutinize and reality test them. 

Let’s first do away with this myth that there’s something wrong about either being weak at times, or acknowledging our weakness when we are weak. 

Any bodybuilder can tell you that after they perform a tough lift, their muscles are weak, sometimes to the point of shaking. 

The reason for this isn’t because their muscles are inadequate. If you look at the physique of a serious bodybuilder, it’s obvious that their musculature is usually more than what any of us would consider “adequate.” 

Rather, the reason for their relative “weakness” after doing a tough lift is because they have temporarily exhausted the energy reserves in their muscle tissues. 

That’s all weakness is— a temporary exhaustion of energy. No more; no less. 

Do bodybuilders, or marathon runners, berate themselves because their muscles are depleted after competing in their respective events? 

Of course not. 

What they do is acknowledge that they’ve expended a great deal of energy over a certain amount of time, and that their comparative weakness at that moment is a completely natural consequence of that energy expenditure— and they get about the business of refueling. 

There is a lesson to be learned here about how we can think of emotional strength and weakness. 

If you’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, addiction, or any other emotional or behavioral difficulty, you likely know that feeling of “weakness.” 

And you likely also know how easy it is to blame yourself for that weakness, and to assume that this weakness is just part of your basic character. 

(For that matter, our culture is often very good at reinforcing the idea that mental and emotional weakness stems from a basic character flaw.)

What I’m suggesting is that you look at your relative “weakness” through a different lens than you may be used to.

I’m going to suggest that OF COURSE you’re weak— because living with depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, or addiction is exhausting. 

Living with these conditions requires a MASSIVE energy outlay nearly every single day, just to function. 

That weakness you feel isn’t the result of some character flaw. It’s the result of having had to expend a lot of energy just to get up every morning and deal with your symptoms. 

The good news is, just like bodybuilders and marathon runners, we can learn to condition ourselves so that our moments of weakness and exhaustion don’t last as long and are not as debilitating. 

We can learn to train. We can learn to rest. We can learn to feed ourselves the right kinds of emotional and behavioral “nutrition” in order to expand our capacity to deal with our weakness. 

But we can only do that if we accept that we ARE weak at times…and there’s nothing wrong with it. 

 

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Don’t worry about variety. Focus on what works for YOU.

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One of the most misunderstood aspects of recovery is that the name of the game isn’t to gather as many tools and skills as you possibly can into your playbook. 

The name of the game is to gather the handful of tools and skills that work for you, specifically. 

It’s true that exposing yourself to lots of different tools, skills, philosophies, systems and teachers will increase the probability you’ll uncover what will work for you specifically. As I wrote on the page the other day, getting curious and voracious in your search for tools is the most important mindset you can develop in this project of “recovery.” 

But realize that, of the dozens of tools you’ll expose yourself to in your search, many of them won’t be quite a right fit for you. 

Some won’t quite fit with your learning style. 

Some, you won’t be able to apply every day because of how your life and obligations are structured. 

Some will require too much attention for you to realistically commit to practicing them every day. 

Some won’t be stimulating enough to hold your interest. 

For a variety of reasons, you’re going to run across plenty of tools that just aren’t quite a fit for what you need in your life and recovery. 

In my experience, what will realistically happen is, as you journey deeper into recovery, you WILL run across a handful of tools and skills— likely from a variety of sources— that WILL work for you. 

It’s THESE tools and skills you have to commit to using— over, and over, and over again. 

I remember when I figured out the key to my own weight management. For years I’d struggled with urges and impulses to eat things that did not nourish me or support me in feeling or performing my best. I’d tried multiple diet approaches and supplements, but usually wound up abandoning new approaches to nutrition after a few days or weeks. And, as you might imagine, my weight fluctuated accordingly. 

I didn’t make substantive improvement in my ability to manage my weight and physical fitness until I realized that one of my big problems was, I was trying to inject too much variety into my diet. 

Each time I bought a new cookbook with dozens of recipes that adhered to new nutritional rules, I soon found myself overwhelmed with options— even within the confines of whatever new approach I was taking to my diet that week. 

What I ended up discovering was that most successful dieters don’t shoot for overwhelming variety in what they eat. They discover a handful of meals that play nicely with their metabolism, body type, and nutritional needs— and then, at least for awhile, they stick to those few “successful” meals…over, and over, and over again. 

When I discovered this, I initially rejected it. I thought that I would get bored eating the same meals over, and over, and over again. 

But, as it turned out, I barely noticed. 

As it turned out, eating a small rotation of meals that I knew “worked” for me took an overwhelming about of anxiety and uncertainty out of the process. 

Ah ha! Key concept!

Recovery tools work in much the same way. You do not need a ton of them. You need a few of them that actually WORK for you— and you need to return to them. Again, and again, and again. 

Trust me, there are many sources and teachers out there that promise you all sorts of nifty advantages if you use their system. We’re living in an age where information about how to change your thoughts and change your behavior is more abundant and available than ever before. 

These days you can find approaches to changing your life that range from behavioral psychology to quantum physics, and everything in between. 

I DO want you searching, getting curious, and being voracious about discovering what works for you. 

But when you find the tools that work for you…I want you leaving everything else on the side of the road as you focus on what actually WORKS. 

Not what “should” work, not what “might” work under the right circumstances, not what works for your family or coworkers or a celebrity. 

I want you to get so familiar with your reliable bag of tools and skills that you could teach advanced seminars on them. 

I want you getting so good at recovery that YOU could be your own therapist…because in the end, you actually are. 

 

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