Why handling anger is tougher than you think.

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The biggest challenge in responding to anger— either yours or someone else’s— is that anger is an emotion that puts people in a volatile, unpredictable state. 

When we are angry, we are, by definition, in touch with impulses and behaviors that are more primal and energy intensive than our “normal,” everyday behaviors. 

It’s helpful to remember why anger exists at all: anger is an evolutionarily-driven response to one’s territory or resources being threatened. 

The reason why anger, as an emotional reaction, was selected FOR in our evolutionary history— and thus the reason why it still exists in our emotional and behavioral repertoire— is because anger has survival value (or it did, at one point). 

When the primitive humans were hunting and gathering their primitive way through their primitive world, they would sometimes come into conflict. 

Primitive humans ran across resources, such as nourishment and mates, that were scarce— and they would fight over them. 

The primitive humans who were able to defend their territory— i.e., their resources and their mates— were selected FOR. That is to say, they would win these competitions with the other primitive humans. 

What helped those victorious primitive humans win? 

Under certain circumstances, anger helped them win. 

The primitive humans who responded to threats by getting angry had an edge. 

When we look at what actually happens when we get angry, we can sort of begin to understand what’s going on. 

Anger has a way of sharpening our focus. It “spikes” our physical reflexes and responses. It provides a temporary rush of adrenaline and energy for the sake of engaging in conflict. 

It’s not hard to see why the primitive humans who were able to get angry when threatened may have had a leg up on those primitive humans who were mellow, forgiving, or passive in response to threat. 

Is all that to say that anger is a “good” thing? 

Eh, not necessarily. We’re talking about the survival of the species here. We’re not talking about what modern humans experience and what modern humans do when they get angry. 

What we need to remember about anger is that it is the kind of emotional response that has the tendency to become consuming. 

There is a reason why anger is so frequently described as or compared to fire. 

Fire is an element that consumes what is burning. Anger is an emotion that threatens to consume whoever is angry— precisely because it is so grounded in our evolutionary history as a species that needed to fight or flee (both of which took tremendous energy) in order to survive. 

What does all this imply for us modern humans, who are trying to manage our own anger— even while being hyper-aware of how seemingly dangerous anger an be? 

First thing’s first: we need to remember that even though anger is evolutionarily hard-wired into our nervous systems, anger is STILL responsive to the tools and skills that are effective in managing all of our emotional states. 

Anger responds to the pace and intensity of our breathing. 

Anger response to what we visualize. 

Anger responds to what we tell ourselves. 

It is true that, because anger is a reaction that had its origin in moments of extreme stress and threat, that managing in the moment FEELS like a much different task than managing, say, anxiety…but substantively, it really isn’t all THAT different. 

It is our EXPERIENCE of anger that is different. 

When we see the “red” of anger, it is sometimes terrifying to us, because that sensation often feels like the warning siren that control is about to be lost. 

It’s also the case that, because anger is so closely associated in our nervous system with existential threats (after all, as cavemen, we most often felt angry right when the options seemed to be “kill or be killed”), seeing the “red” of anger is often linked to literal for one’s life— which, of course, consumes its OWN significant cognitive and energetic resources. 

The biggest thing to remember about anger is that, even though it FEELS much different from other emotions, the basics of managing it remain the same. 

Anger needs certain thoughts, visualizations, and physiology to feed it. 

By interrupting the pattern of those thoughts, visualizations, you can deny anger the “air” it needs to breathe. 

By closely observing how we experience anger— what reactions happen in what order, what thoughts trigger anger and what thoughts maintain it— we can learn not only  the nuts and bolts of how anger happens “to” us…but we can learn how to derail that train before it gains so much momentum that we really lose control. 

It’s not an easy process. No response that has its roots so deep in our evolutionary history is likely to be “easy” to change. 

Just like any emotional and behavioral pattern we experience, the fundamentals remain observation, self-experimentation, and responsiveness to the data that we generate from our own lived experience. 

Self-programming and self-brainwashing, in other words. 

Hmm. Wonder where we’ve heard THAT before?  

 

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When the “experts” can’t stay in their lanes.

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It’s really important to remember that, just because you are heavily involved and invested in this  project of improving your life and getting happier and healthier, that doesn’t mean you’re living in denial about the difficult or unfair things in the world. 

If you follow my work, you know that I write and talk a LOT about the things we can do to make our lives better. 

Whereas a lot of people spend a lot of energy fuming about the things that are wrong with the world— often on an institutional or societal level— I tend not to put my focus there. 

That’s not because I believe the world is problem-free. 

I don’t believe the world is even fundamentally fair. 

I absolutely believe that there are issues of power, inequality, and privilege that result in a LOT of people having to contend with an appallingly unfair playing field. 

I am not naive’ or in denial about ANY of that. 

There are ABSOLUTELY things that I would prefer be different about society, the economy, and the world— and I have an overwhelming amount of respect and admiration for those who have dedicated their personal and professional lives to changing things in the big picture. 

The reason I don’t write so much about social justice or injustice ISN’T because I believe it’s futile to do so (though I will say, writing about social justice with nuance and perspective seems to be one of the most difficult tasks in modern media). 

The reason I don’t really write and talk about social justice and injustice is because it’s not really what I’m trained and qualified to write and talk about. 

What I AM trained and qualified to talk about is how people can create change in their individual lives. How people can take greater control over their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. 

To broaden the content that I publicly put out there would be me veering way out of my lane— and as someone who cares about my audience and my reputation, that kind of thing really matters. 

For example: we’re in the middle of a public health crisis, and many people seem to have very divergent opinions on what governments and other institutions can and should do in response to that crisis. 

I have my own opinions and impressions on that subject— but am I an authority on epidemiology, infectious disease, or economics? I am very much NOT not. 

Thus, it would be unreasonable for me to go on my page and pretend to my 55,000 social media followers that I had anything other than half-baked impressions and opinions on the subject. 

You might have noticed, however— not all self-help figures seem to share my reluctance to stick to what we know when making public statements. 

In the last two months, we’ve seen, over and over again, self-help figures from Dr. Phil McGraw, to Dr. Oz, to Dr. Drew, to even my personal favorite (said with a great deal of sarcasm) James Arthur Ray, using their heavily-traffcked public platforms to make public pronouncements about the public health situation…many of which seem to diverge from the opinions and recommendations of the most visible public health authorities and officials in our culture. 

Why is this important to point this out? Am I saying that no one who has a public platform SHOULD be out there challenging the “official” narrative surrounding the public health situation? Am I saying that people shouldn’t think for themselves, and instead swallow everything the government feeds us, hook, line, and sinker? 

I’m not saying that at all. 

What I AM saying is, it’s very important, when you’re following popular self-help personalities, to keep track of their areas of expertise…and to have a feeling for when they’re veering out of their lanes for the sake of attracting clicks. 

I’m writing about this specifically because I know— I don’t think, I KNOW— that my audience is smart. 

I know self-help seekers are generally smart, and optimistic, and hungry for knowledge and new perspectives. 

I also know that the self-help paradigm is such that we tend to get kind of attached to those figures to whom we gravitate…and we can sometimes lose perspective on when they might be talking out of school. 

Back when I was overwhelmingly depressed as a teenager and young adult, one of the things that literally saved my life was cramming my head full of good stuff whenever I could. I devoured self help books, articles, and programs— anything and everything that I thought could give me some perspective on why I felt the way I did, and how I might change it. 

Saturating your brain with good, constructive, proactive content is something I highly recommend— but in this environment where everyone is writing and publishing things with the goal of attracting as many clicks and eyeballs as possible…we have to be smart and selective about who we let into our heads. 

Not every “expert” out there will be straightforward about their limitations or blind spots. 

If an “expert” seems allergic to saying “I don’t know” or “That’s not really my field”…pay attention. 

There are lots of people out there, in the self-help field and elsewhere, who have a lot of interesting, helpful things to say…but it’s still up to us to be mindful and intelligent about the content we consume and the personalities we embrace. 

I do my best to do right by my audience, and I’m profoundly grateful for those who follow my work. 

But I’m not different from anybody else in the field. I have my blind spots, and I have my limitations. 

Take what I say with as many grains of salt as you would when reading anybody else. 

But if you’re reading this…you probably know that already and you’re probably doing that already. 

Good job!

 

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Brainwash Yourself.

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We have to brainwash ourselves. 

I’m not even remotely kidding. 

We have been brainwashed. All of us. For years. 

What I mean when I say that is, we have been influenced. Programmed. 

Sometime this has happened straightforwardly; sometimes surreptitiously. 

Many, many institutions exist in the world explicitly for the purpose of influencing how we think, feel, and behave. 

Many of these influence-wielding organizations and individuals operate with the best of intentions. They THINK they’re doing good in the world through their attempts to influence people. 

Political parties fit this description. Many religions fit this description. Activist organizations fit this description. 

The desire to influence how others think, feel, and behave is not, in itself, bad. Almost everybody wants to do this— many with perfectly good intentions. 

The problem is when we grow up thinking we have fully, freely “chosen” our thoughts, feelings, and behavior…when the truth is that we have been programmed, almost since birth, with other peoples’ messaging and beliefs. 

Why am I telling you any of this? 

It’s not because I want you to be paranoid. 

It’s because many of us are saddled with beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that don’t work for us. They work against us. 

And we think we have freely “chosen” those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors…when in reality, they have been chosen for us by advertisers, politicians, journalists, and other wielders of influence in our environments. 

Why do we believe the things we believe about ourselves? 

Why do we believe the things we do about behavior? 

Why do we believe that certain feelings or impulses are “right” or “better” than others? 

Many people, for example, think it is morally dubious to struggle with addiction— that only certain “types” of people become addicts. 

Many people believe that to struggle with certain facets of their sexuality is evidence of moral shortcomings. 

Many people believe that people who struggle to stay on task or complete assignments lack character or work ethic— that they are “lazy.” 

And many people believe that people who get involved with exploitative cults are somehow “stupid” or “weak.” 

None of these conclusions is supported by psychological research…yet, you’ll find these beliefs fairly widespread. 

Why? 

Programming. 

We have certain messages pounded into our brains, again and again, from the time we are young. 

“You’re not enough.” “Good people don’t struggle with addiction.” “If you think about sex, you’re bad.” “Depression is a sign that you’re doing something wrong.” “If you trusted God enough, you wouldn’t be anxious.” 

We get those messages on repeat— and they sink in. 

Programming is inescapable in our culture— and many times, it is destructive. 

That’s why we need to take charge of our own programming. 

We need to “brainwash” ourselves. 

We need to decide what WE really think and believe…and then put that on a loop for OURSELVES. 

It’s not an easy process. The easy thing to do is to kind of go with the cultural flow. 

But if we’re going to live a conscious, purposeful life, it’s a process that we cannot escape or avoid. 

Don’t let anyone else brainwash you. 

Brainwash yourself first.

 

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How to handle it when you make a “poor” choice.

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There are going to be times when we’re tested by life…and found wanting. 

There are going to be times when we fail. 

When we make the wrong call. 

When we make a poor decision. 

There are going to be times when we don’t handle stress well. 

When we do things that actively work against our goals or contradict our values. 

It’s GOING to happen. It’s not a matter of “maybe” it will happen; it WILL, sooner or later. 

The question is, what do we do AFTER we stumble? 

We need to remember that our lives happen in long arcs. 

Yes, sometimes there are major choice points that can seem to make or break our destinies; but more often than not, our life results are the accumulation of lots and lots of little choice points. 

The temptation is to get really down on ourselves for whiffing on some of those smaller choice points. 

For example, I have the tendency to get absolutely vicious with myself when I make poor eating choices. 

When you’re in a certain headspace, it can seem like one day of going off-diet can seem like you’ve made the decision to absolutely ruin, absolutely negate, months and years of working hard to make responsible food choices and remain dedicated to your physical fitness routine. 

It’s at these moments that it is imperative we keep the long game in mind. 

Yes, you might have made a choice right here and now that isn’t the most aligned with your goals and values. 

But we need to remember that one choice is one choice. 

Back up and look at the pattern. 

Ask yourself: what can I do to make sure this choice doesn’t blossom into a PATTERN of behavior that undermines my goals and values? 

Ask yourself: what can I LEARN from this particular “failure?” 

Ask yourself: what factors contributed to my struggle to make a positive, congruent choice today? 

Nobody LIKES to make a “poor” choice…but our supposed “poor” choices can come with lots of useful data for us. 

The truth is, if we constantly made “good” choices, we’d essentially learn nothing. 

We’d learn nothing about how we handle stress. 

We’d learn nothing about what we need to cope more effectively. 

We’d learn nothing about what we need to feel good. 

The goal of all of this is always to cultivate experiences that feel good and make it easy for us to live our values. 

In order to effectively do that, we need to keep our eyes and ears (and minds) open to how stress operates on us. 

Making “poor” choices may not be ideal…but we don’t have to let those moments be a complete loss. 

Accept your momentary “defeat.” 

Refuse to get vicious with yourself. 

Figure out what this momentary “defeat” has to teach you. 

Then…get back up and brush yourself off. 

This has just been a bad moment. It’s not your entire life, or the entirety of who you are as a person. 

 

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Things I wish more people knew about abuse.

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Something I wish more people knew and accepted about abuse survivors is that they— we— often have complicated relationships with our abusers. 

Very often, abusers are friends, family, or otherwise entwined in a survivor’s social or familial system. 

Some people like to think that, if someone was abusing you, you’d whistle a halt to it right then, tell everybody about it, cut the abuser off, and then keep the abuser cut off. 

It very often doesn’t work like that. 

Survivors are often afraid to come forward. 

Sometimes they’re afraid of their abuser; sometimes they’re afraid they won’t be believed; sometimes they’re afraid of the fallout if they WERE believed. 

I know that I didn’t come forward because I assumed I would be blamed. 

I was a weird kid, and I was very often told I was a weird kid. 

I assumed that if I told anybody about the fact that I was being abused by my babysitter,  everyone would assume that this is just the sort of weird thing that Glenn says, who knows if it’s true. 

But then on the other hand, I had no idea what to expect even if I WAS then seriously. This guy’s family lived across the street. His parents (or his caretakers, anyway, I have no idea if they were his parents or his grandparents or what) were elderly. What was going to happen, would he be arrested? Would he have to move? Would we have to move? 

It all seemed overwhelming— a hassle and a headache for everyone involved. 

And I didn’t want to be the cause of MORE hassles and headaches for the adults around me than I already caused. 

It seems that I often see the accounts of abuse survivors questioned because they didn’t
“behave” like we assume victims “should” behave. 

Sometimes they continue to have associations with and relationships with their abusers, for a variety of reasons. 

One of the reasons why a subset of people disbelieve the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as kids was because those men continued to have friendships and professional connections to Michael Jackson for years after they say the abuse happened. 

As if that means anything. 

Any more than my reluctance to cause the adults around me hassles and headaches means I wasn’t abused. 

There is no playbook for how abuse victims “should” act in the aftermath of their abuse. 

You cannot tell, by looking at a relationship from the outside, what happens between two people behind closed doors. 

When I eventually DID tell my parents what had happened to me, several years had gone by. The guy had moved away from our neighborhood (I think he moved away from home, either for school or a military career). 

The fact that people don’t reveal their abuse within a certain time frame doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

There are lots and lots of reasons why people don’t disclose they’re being abused. 

Abuse happens in all types of families, all types of systems, and all types of cultures, and to people of all genders. 

The most compassionate thing any of us can do when we’re told of abuse is to set aside our preconceived notions about what it does or doesn’t mean to have been abused. 

Survivors are not looking for your judgment or your pity. 

Whether you think an abuse narrative is “credible” or not, literally doesn’t matter. 

Whether someone fits your personal notion of someone who “probably was” or “probably wasn’t” abused, literally doesn’t matter. 

No one is interested in your thoughts about how “likely” it was that abuse did or did not occur. 

Anyone’s judgment about the “likelihood” of an abuse narrative being “true” has literally no bearing on whether that abuse did, in fact, happen. 

There are lots of supposedly “unlikely” abuse victims out there. 

And there are lots of abusers who don’t fit into many peoples’ idea of what an “abuser” looks like. 

 

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You’re GOING to be affected by the world…and that’s okay.

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You’re going to be told, a lot, that you shouldn’t be a victim of your circumstances. 

You’re going to be told that YOU control your feelings and your destiny. 

You’re going to be told that life happens “for” you, not “to” you. 

And you’re going to be told that, if you’re not kicking life’s butt, it’s basically your fault— it’s because you’ve not “mastered” your emotions and reactions. 

All of which, sounds to me, like a lot of pressure. 

I mean, who are they kidding? 

The truth is, we are PLENTY affected by a LOT of things outside of our control— and that’s not a commentary on how much we have or haven’t “mastered” our emotions or reactions. 

I assure you: you can have near complete “mastery” over your emotions and reactions, and you STILL would be very affected by the things happening around you. 

It has nothing to do with “inner strength” or “willpower” or “focus.” 

We human beings are DESIGNED to interact with our environment. 

We develop in response to how our caretakers behave toward us growing up. 

(This is why abuse and neglect have such a profound impact on kids. It’s not just that abuse and trauma are painful; it’s that abuse and trauma actually impede the normal development of emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills.)

As adults, we are wired to respond to and interact with our environment. 

Even the most introverted people in the world have to interact constructively with the people, places, and things around them. 

The idea that we can somehow ignore what’s happening around us— like, for example, a public health crisis— and rely on our own “inner mastery” is a fantasy. 

Make no mistake, it’s a seductive fantasy— especially if we’ve been disappointed or hurt by the people around us growing up. 

(This is one of the reasons why the fantasy of complete self-reliance is pushed by the self-help industry— because self-help gurus know that their audience is disproportionately comprised of people who had traumatic or otherwise difficult upbringings.)

You are not “weak” if you are affected by what goes on around you. 

It is normal to be affected by and responsive to the people, places, and things around you— both in the big picture, and on very intimate levels. 

You don’t need to make “complete self reliance” a goal. 

Every time I talk or write about how we need to be wary of this fantasy of complete self-reliance, I get pushback from people who say that they’ve decided that the only way to keep from being disappointed or hurt by other people was to, in fact, become completely self-reliant. 

I hate to burst your bubble, but there is no level of self-reliance that is going to guarantee that you never get hurt or disappointed by another person. 

And in trying to cut yourself off from the rest of the human community, you’re going to be cutting yourself off not only from the possibility of being hurt…but the possibility of being helped, identified with, acknowledged, and healed, as well. 

I get it. I’m an introvert. I’m not nuts about the demands that a lot of interpersonal contact and interaction places on us. 

I get VERY annoyed when I see extroverts preaching about how the ONLY acceptable way to live life is with HEAVY doses of social interaction. 

The good news for us introverts is, we DON’T have to become experts at or completely comfortable with social interaction in order to live a productive, fulfilling life. 

But we NEED to make peace with the fact that we are going to have to develop skills, tools, and strategies to manage the impact that the world has on us— because we are simply never going to get to the post where we are unaffected by the world or other people. 

Being affected by the world is not a failure of will or skill. 

It is the human condition. 

And we can learn to work with it— rather than against it. 

 

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Book excerpt from “The Book of NO: Practical Skills and Strategies for Handling Rejection”

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Let’s be clear about one thing from the outset: you CAN handle rejection. By which I mean, rejection does NOT have to precipitate a meltdown that ruins your life. 

I know, I know. It may absolutely FEEL like rejection will, in fact, ruin your life. 

It may even feel like the ONLY rational— or possible— response to rejection is, in fact, to melt down. 

I’m not saying that what you’re FEELING is wrong. I don’t, actually, believe that FEELINGS are either “right” or “wrong”— they just are what they are. 

Feelings are kind of the human mechanism’s reflexive response to thoughts.

We might have a thought— or maybe not even a thought, perhaps just an impression— and, in response, our lizard brain gives us a jolt of “this is good news!” or “this is bad news!” feeback. 

We call those “jolts” of feedback “feelings.”

So feelings aren’t right or wrong. They are reflexive. 

We don’t ask for them— we really do just get them handed to us by our central nervous systems. 

Thoughts, however— thoughts can be reality testing as “right” or “wrong.” 

At least, they can to the extent that they are summation of checkable facts. 

If I have the thought, “I have a cat named Abbey Road who is sleeping within arm’s reach of me”— that thought is testable. It can be empirically verified. I can use my senses to confirm or disconfirm it. 

I can look for a cat. I can reach out with my arm and feel for a cat. I can say her name— “Abbey Road!”— and see whether she looks at me with her big, blue, Siamese cat eyes. 

(She did.) 

Granted, not all thoughts are as easily testable as that thought about my cat. 

We humans very often have thoughts that comprise not statements of fact, but value judgments that stem from our perception and understanding of fact. 

I might have the thought, “I’ve only written a page and a half today— I’m absurdly lazy for a supposed writer.” 

One part of that thought is testable— it’s entirely possible to check how much I’ve written today— but the other part of that thought is, by definition, subjective. 

Your mileage on whether I’m “lazy,” based on today’s output, will vary. 

Why am I telling you any of this? 

Because to understand our relationship to the concept of rejection, we have to be SUPER CLEAR on what thoughts and feelings are and aren’t, and what they mean or don’t mean. 

You know how I said, in the previous chapter, that at least one of the reasons why people respond so strongly to the experience of rejection is because it “triggers” them? 

Chances are, there are some people who had a reaction to that assertion— perhaps positive, perhaps negative. 

Some people might have had the thought, “Dr. Doyle is waaaaaay oversimplifying what happens with rejection.” 

Others might have had the thought, “Dr. Doyle is just plain wrong. This is all about ego. Why is he talking about trauma and triggers?” 

And still others might have had the thought, “Yup. Homeboy nailed it.” 

Which of those thoughts is correct? 

All of them. None of them. 

They’re all correct for the people who thought them, because they are thoughts of the subjective variety. When held up against a person’s understanding of the world and their value system sure, my assertion that rejection “triggers” people can be either “right” or “wrong.” 

And yet: here in the real world, EXACTLY OPPOSITE things can’t be simultaneously TRUE, can they? 

It sure seems they are. 

But that brings us back to that FEELING that rejection is the end of the world. That the ONLY possible response to rejection is to spiral, to melt down, to wither up. 

Depending on a number of different variables, you may or may not FEEL any of these to be true. 

But the “truth” of ANY of those feelings depends, to quote Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi, on a certain point of view. 

Here’s what I know: rejection, in and of itself, does not kill anybody. 

People’s REACTION or RESPONSE to rejection might put one in danger of death. But rejection itself is not lethal. 

It may be unpleasant. 

It may— and probably is— triggering. 

It may feel overwhelming. 

But the words and behaviors that actually comprise rejection WILL NOT kill you. 

That statement isn’t one of those “it depends upon your point of view” things. 

You can survive rejection because rejection is not, in itself, fatal. 

No matter what it feels like. No matter what your lizard brain is saying. 

We have to start from this premise: rejection, itself (i.e., independent of any behavior associated with rejection), is not a danger to my life. 

Notice what pops up in your body and brain when you read that. 

Do you suddenly get worried that I’m about to spend the rest of this book telling you that rejection simply “isn’t that bad,” oblivious to the fact that, sure, it may not be LETHAL, but it sure feels horrible? 

Do you suddenly worry that I’m about to tell you to “suck it up,” that everybody gets rejected, that the solution to handling rejection is to simply develop tougher skin? 

(If you are having a reaction like that, check it out: this is what getting triggered feels like.) 

Easy does it. In telling you, in absolutely clear terms that REJECTION IS SURVIVABLE, I’m not minimizing how painful rejection is. 

(After all, I’m the guy who is writing a whole book about how to handle rejection specifically because it IS so painful.) 

It’s just important to start out from a reality-based place where we can establish a baseline for the DANGER associated with rejection. 

What’s that? The “danger” of rejection? 

Yup. 

Just because rejection, in itself, is not lethal, doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous.

Rejection is plenty dangerous, emotionally— in much the same way that any trigger is potentially dangerous. 

When an event sets something off inside of us that yanks our focus away from where we would otherwise choose to place it, I consider that a danger. 

It’s a danger to our values, to our goals, and to our stability. 

So don’t think I’m in the business of minimizing rejection. Don’t think I’m about to spend chapter after chapter telling you to grow up or develop a thicker skin. That’s not my jam. 

So we’ve established that you can physically survive rejection, with your life intact— but what about emotionally and behaviorally? 

Well. Let’s talk about that.