The more I find out, the less that I know.


Black and white thinking is what happens when we assume things are all one way, all one thing, or the other.

No grey, no ambiguity, no wiggle room, no nuance.

It’s an exceedingly common cognitive pattern. Humans rather like to think in black and white.

Shades of grey, after all, are often confusing. They’re inconvenient.

Shades of grey are a hassle, insofar as they require us to do more thinking than stark black and white categories do.

When things are black and white, we don’t have to do the hard work of really sitting with potential contradictions; examining evidence; feeling our way around the edges of what might or might not be “true” or “real.”

Make no mistake: I absolutely believe there are black and white truths in the world. I think there are things that are true and untrue; right and wrong; okay and not okay.

Black and white do exist.

But not nearly as often, and not in as many places, as our brains like to tell us.

And it is absolutely the case that black and white thinking almost always creates more, and bigger, problems than it solves.

The “benefits” of black and white thinking— a sense of certainty, clarity, security— don’t tend to hold up the real world. Because most of the real world doesn’t fall into the category of unambiguous black and white.

Most of the time when we think in black and white, it’s not about unambiguous moral issues like murder or torture or cruelty.

Most of the time, we take those black and white thinking patterns and apply them to our own conduct— in areas where it just doesn’t work.

Many times, there isn’t a “right” answer for questions like, “what should I have done in this situation?”

Many times, there isn’t a “right” answer for questions like, “what should I do next?”

Many times, there isn’t a ‘“right” answer for questions like, “Am I good or bad?”

We wish there were black and white answers to those questions. It would make life so much simpler, more straightforward. But there simply aren’t.

We have to give up the illusion that black and white thinking can solve our problems by making things clear and true.

Our motives are very often— most often— a complex combination of factors.

Our perceptions are very often— most often— a complex mix.

There are very often no black and white answers to why we do what we do; why we want what we want; why we did what we did.

I’m not asking you to give up your search for truth or your passion for clarity. Indeed, I feel we must continue to search for what’s right, what’s true, to be clear about what matters and what doesn’t.

I’m asking you to remember that black and white thinking, when rigidly applied to our own lives, can often create more confusion, unhappiness, and frustration than not.

I’m asking you to remember that most often, you, and the people around you, and even the people from your past, exist in lighter and darker shades of grey.

I’m asking you to have compassion for yourself, instead of holding yourself to a rigid standard that human beings were not designed to be held to.

You can absolutely remain committed to truth, while acknowledging the nuances of reality.

You can absolutely hold yourself to high standards, while still remaining committed to fairness and compassion with yourself.

Be real with your thinking.

Be kind…in your head.


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Take it easy on your past self.


Sometimes it’s enormously difficult to look forward and focus on the tasks ahead of us, when we’re all up in our heads about opportunities we’ve missed in the past.

The other day I was sitting across from a patient who was seething that the therapeutic tasks in front of her were essentially the same tasks that were on her plate three or four years ago.

Understand, this patient is much, much better than she was when she began therapy. Even she readily admits that the “her” of today would hardly recognize the broken, hopeless person she was when she first walked through my door.

Therapy has worked— mostly because she’s invested an enormous amount of blood, sweat, and tears in the process.

However, it is the case that this patient’s current obstacles to getting to the next level in recovery look an awful lot like the obstacles that frustrated her (albeit in much more aggressive,  dangerous ways) several years ago. They are obstacles many people who are struggling through recovery day by day will probably recognize: remembering what she already knows, and being willing and able to use the skills she already has when the situation calls for it.

As we discussed ways for her to incorporate the skills she’s learned in therapy into her everyday life so they have a greater chance of becoming second nature, my patient growled, “It’s the same stuff you’ve been telling me for years! I should have been doing this all along!”

I get her frustration.

Ironically, it’s often when we make new breakthroughs or learn new skills that we become most frustrated with what we “could have been doing all along.”

The thing is, though: COULD we have been doing those things all along?

I’m not completely sold on the idea that we could.

The reality is, we’re not ready to do what we’re not ready to do.

It may seem like we can do anything at any time, if we only got over our assorted mental blocks, buckled down, and just DID them. But it’s my experience that most people who aren’t doing a thing that they “should” be doing aren’t just stubborn or self-defeating.

They may simply not be ready to do the thing.

If we’re not ready to do something, no amount of self-reproach or internal bullying will make us ready.

If we weren’t ready to do something in the past, even if it was a thing that probably could have improved our lives or reduced our suffering, it does us no good to go back and belittle ourselves for not being ready.

Our past selves don’t need the scorn of our present selves.

How do you like the idea of your future self being reproachful of the “you” of right now simply because you’re not presently ready to do a thing?

We get a lot more mileage out of being compassionate toward our past self, and patient with our present self.

Your past self didn’t ask to not be ready to do the thing. He or she wasn’t trying to frustrate or stymie your present self. Chances are, your past self was as frustrated as you are now that they weren’t ready to do the thing.

Trust me: if I thought for a second there was any kind of merit to yelling at our past selves—or the past, for that matter— I’d be all over it.

But the fact is, no matter how much we yell at the past, it’s gone.

The river flows in one direction: forward.

Yelling at the rapids you’ve already navigated— or at yourself for how you navigated those rapids— will only distract you from the waterfalls and whitewater and whirlpools ahead.

Waterfalls and whitewater and whirlpools you’re way more prepared to navigate, may I add, having already braved those past rapids.

It’s normal to be frustrated with opportunities missed. It’s a drag that we weren’t able to seize them when we had the chance. It’d be awesome if we had been ready and able to do those things at the time.

Which makes it all the more imperative that we not miss any more chances to use what we know…every single day.


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More than a river in Egypt.


There’s this temptation to think that if we don’t acknowledge a need, we won’t have to deal with it. Either needing it, or wanting it, or the consequences of its absence.

Denial is a long time leading candidate for “worst coping skill ever tried in the history of coping skills.”

It’s also a long time leading candidate for “most popular, yet ineffective, coping skill ever tried in the history of coping skills.”

Why is denial so seductive?

Well, it’s simple, for starters. As a psychological defense, denial doesn’t make you jump through the cognitive hoops that, say, projective identification (Google it) does. All you have to do to be in denial is cross your arms, close your eyes, and shake your head vigorously, and say, “That thing I know or suspect to be true? Nope. It’s not true. Nuh uh. Nyet. Nope to the nope.”

See? Easy.

Mind you, while we have our eyes closed and we’re shaking our heads so vigorously, life, like, continues to go on around us. That need we’re trying to deny and disown, that situation we’re trying to pretend doesn’t exist? They still exist.

(Spoiler, I know.)

But here’s the thing: when we’re confronted with a need or a situation that we simply don’t know what to do about, let alone how to feel about, the straight up denial often feels more manageable than having to do the sometimes tough emotional and practical work necessary to actually cope with it.

We fall back on denial not because we’re dumb, not because we’re immature, not because we’re stubborn. Most people fall back on denial because they simply don’t know what the hell else to do.

Would you like to know what to do, when you don’t know what to do? Other than close your eyes and plunge further into denial, that is?

Acknowledge that you don’t know what the hell to do.

Acknowledge it to yourself, acknowledge it to someone else. Acknowledge it to as many people as will listen, really.

Acknowledging something, even the fact that you’re completely lost and clueless, is 1000% more productive than letting the coping “skill” of denial take a crack at the problem.

Not only is admitting we’re clueless the first step to becoming not-clueless, but refusing to live in a state of denial is healthier for our self-esteem as well.

Self-esteem has a lot to do with self-honesty. It’s really, really hard to build healthy, authentic self-esteem when we’re BS’ing ourselves or others. Self-esteem doesn’t really grow well in the absence of living consciously and living with integrity.

Some people slip and and out of detail not only because they don’t know what to do, but also because they simply wish they didn’t have to do it. It’s as if acknowledging a need or a situation somehow makes it more “real,” makes it something they’ll have to actually deal with, when the fact is they’d really rather not.

The bummer is— whether we admit something to ourselves or not, we ARE going to have to deal with it.

We can deal with it on our own terms…or we can deal with it when life forces us to deal with it, usually in much bigger, messier ways.

If you’re having trouble admitting something to yourself, if you’re tempted to bliss out in a state of denial…take a deep breath. Ask yourself what’s the worst that could come from admitting something…and what’s the worst that might come of letting something fester until it is completely unmanageable, out of your control.

There’s a reason why the First Step in twelve step traditions is the admission of powerlessness over one’s addiction— because we can’t solve a problem we refuse to admit exists.

Even if we really, really don’t want to.


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Your results reflect your commitment…and a lot of other stuff.


I read a self-help guru today say that “your results reflect your commitment, period.”

How nice it must be to live a world that simple.

This is one of the big problems I have with the self-help movement today. For as much as I love the field— indeed, I would never have gotten into psychology without the self-help movement— it tends toward simplistic formulae and answers to problems that don’t acknowledge or deal with the complexity and unpredictability of life.

And why would self-help WANT to deal with the complexity and unpredictability of life, anyway? Simple, broad solutions sell more books and tapes and seminars.

Unfortunately, however, the truth is that life IS complex.

Life IS unpredictable.

Life CANNOT be adequately dealt with broad strokes that don’t acknowledge its complexity and unpredictability.

In my view, the role of therapists, sponsors, and teachers is NOT to give you simple answers that are applicable in every situation. Rather, our role is to help people accept, deal with, and cope with the fact that life is complex. It’s difficult. There are no clear cut solutions.

Life is hacking our way through wilderness.

Are our results partially a reflection of our commitment? I suppose, sure. Really committing to goals does impact the probability we’ll achieve them.
Does total commitment GUARANTEE a result? Sorry, I’m afraid not.

There’s more to it than just committing to a goal.

There’s luck.

There’s the weather.

There’s the level of energy and focus you might have on any given day. Even the healthiest, best conditioned people with the best nutrition and fitness regimens available are going to have days when they feel more vibrant and energized than others; and days when they feel sluggish and sleepy. It happens.

Then there are all the variables other people insert into the mix.

Sometimes there will be people who will appear in your path, seemingly for the explicit purpose of blocking you from achieving your goal.

Likewise, there will be people who will unexpectedly appear in your path who will help you along your journey, whose presence you couldn’t have possibly predicted or prepared for.

There are factors that impact our results like mental illness. Like trauma. Like the balance or imbalance of neurotransmitters in our brains on any given day. You cannot overcome the massive influence these factors exert on your journey simply by “committing” to your goals.

Be smart. Be realistic. Know that “commitment” may be a very important factor in your success…but it is only one factor.

How do we deal with the fact that life is complex and unpredictable, that we’re not totally in control of our own destiny?

Not by giving up or becoming discouraged. We deal with these facts by cultivating the trait of flexibility, and by realistically acknowledging that we’re going to have some days that are better than others, that we’re going to achieve some of our results and not others.

The idea that our “commitment” is the only thing that impacts our results is a childish fantasy.

There are gurus who will ask you to pay them a great deal of money so they can enable and nurture this childish fantasy.

These gurus are not your friends.

Understand: focus, commitment, and persistence are invaluable tools. It is absolutely the case that to cultivate these tools is to dramatically improve your odds of achieving your goals. I’ve written over and over and over again about how we cannot control many factors in our success, and this is the very reason we have to take control over those factors we CAN control— factors like “commitment.”

It’s a good thing to be “committed” to our goals.

But if we get it in our heads that our results are a reflection of our level of “commitment,” and nothing else, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and discouragement when things don’t go our way.

Live in the real world with me.

Embrace a more useful, more realistic view of what makes for success.

Don’t be tempted to buy into the simplistic fantasies peddled by people who have little to no training or credentials in behavioral science.

You’ve got this.


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We are what we focus on.


Why is focusing on our strengths so important?

After all, some people would tell us that we should focus on our weaknesses instead of our strengths, in order to improve those areas in which we’re comparatively not strong.

There’s no question that we should be realistic about our weaknesses and do what we can to shore them up. Nothing is gained by ignoring, denying or disowning our areas of weaknesses.

That said: what we focus on, with consistency and intensity, forms the core of our self-image.

And our self-image determines what we are and are not wiling to do in our lives; what we’re willing to tolerate in our lives; the goals we feel good about pursuing; the rewards we believe we deserve.

Our self-image is the fundamental lens through which we see reality.

If we are disproportionately focused on our weaknesses, we form a self-image that revolves around things we can’t do well.

See, our brains take their cue about what’s important, especially about us as human beings, from our focus. “If they’re focusing on THIS THING so much, it must be REALLY IMPORTANT to who and what we are,” the logic goes.

It’s really easy to develop a lopsided version of ourselves, in which those things we CAN’T do well are more important than those things we CAN.

It’s even easier to develop this lopsided version of ourselves when we already have a set of beliefs that revolves around our inadequacies and failures. Which, unfortunately, many of us do.

What we focus on expands, at last in our minds.

What we think becomes easier to think again.

What we tell ourselves becomes easier to tell ourselves again.

It’s really, really important to keep perspective when we consider our weaknesses…and to remind ourselves that our weaknesses are NOT more important than our strengths.

Our strengths are what define us.

Our strengths are often more reflective of our interests and values than our weaknesses— which is why, frankly, they’re often our strengths to begin with.

We truly have the choice whether to define ourselves by our strengths or our weaknesses. Only we can determine where to direct more of our focus. No one else can make that decision for us— where our mind’s eye most often goes.

Why not define ourselves by our strengths?

After all, even if we want to shore up our weaknesses— it’s by looking at our strengths that we’ll find a roadmap of how to turn weaknesses into strengths.

(And by focusing on weaknesses, what are we trying to learn? How to turn strengths into weaknesses? Come on.)

Learning to focus, first and most intently, on your strengths, is a skill. It can be learned and practiced. And learning and practicing these skills are the key to developing self-confidence and stable, genuine self-esteem.

You can practice that skill right now.

What are your strengths?

What do you do well?

Those are questions worth getting in the habit of asking.


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Feelings are not facts. Thank goodness.


Too often, we get very up in our heads because what we can do, what we feel capable of doing, at any given time does not match up to how well we “should” be able to do something in our heads.

We know there are certain things that are important to us. We know there are certain things that we’d like to be able to do well.

We’d like to make a good impression on others.

We’d like to perform our job functions competently. We’d like to be acknowledged by others as performing our job functions competently.

We’d like to do physical exercise that is well-suited to our fitness goals.

Mind you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do things well. Of course we want to do things well. These are things we care about. We care about our relationships with others. We care about our job performance. We care about our appearance and fitness level.

There’s nothing wrong with caring about things.

But when our level of “caring” about something translates, on a practical level, to “I don’t want to even ATTEMPT to do this thing unless I FEEL like I’ll be able to do it well,” we’re stuck with a few very basic problems.

First of all, we never quite know if our FEELINGS about being able to do something are even accurate.

There are definitely days when we’ve FELT like we can do something very well, when it has turned out that, actually, it’s an off day for us.

I was just reminded of this on the running track. I’ve been working through a knee injury that’s kept me from my beloved hobby of long distance running for a few months now. The other day I woke up, FEELING like it might be a good day to try a long run again. I was CONVINCED that today I could try to run, and my knee wouldn’t hurt.

As it turned out? Womp womp— once I got on the track, my knee hurt more than ever.

So our FEELINGS about whether we can do something aren’t always accurate. We shouldn’t assume that because we FEEL like we can or can’t do something, that we’re right.

How we FEEL about our ability to do something can be taken into consideration, of course— feelings are sources of information that should be paid attention to. But, as I’ve said over and over and over again, feelings shouldn’t be our ONLY source of information.

Don’t over-rely on your subjective sense of whether you FEEL up to a task. You might be wrong.

Second, if we always waited until we FELT like we could do something perfectly or well…a lot of the time, we would never get around to trying anything, ever.

Whoever said that we have to FEEL like we can do something, in order to do it?

Whoever said that if we make an attempt to do something, and that attempt doesn’t go PERFECTLY, or even as well as we imagined it might go…then that attempt doesn’t have value?

When we live our lives imprisoned by this belief that we can only do something if and when we FEEL up to it, when we FEEL like we can do it perfectly or very well, we’re going to be doing a lot of waiting. We’re also going to be robbing ourselves of the experience of doing things IMPERFECTLY…which are exactly the experiences we often need in order to grow or get better at things.

A lot of people don’t like to hear this, but it’s the truth: much of life is all about doing things when we don’t FEEL like doing them, and adjusting to the discomfort that comes with that experience.

The people who are most valuable to their organizations and to their families, the people who end up succeeding most often at the projects they choose in life…they often wind up being valuable and successful precisely because they’ve learned to cope with doing things they don’t FEEL like doing in the moment.

How do you expect to develop effective coping skills if you never put yourself in the position of having to cope with things?

Understand: of course it’d be marvelous to only ever have to do things we FEEL like we can do perfectly or well at any given moment. I would LOVE to live in a world where I could walk around with a sense of effortless, guaranteed competence at life.

But if I was, in fact, effortlessly competent at life, I’d never have to cope with failure.

I’d never have to learn to overcome reluctance or fear.

I’d be of very limited value as a therapist. Or as a mentor. Or as a friend. Or as a partner.

We want and need people in our lives who have learned to do things even when they don’t FEEL like they can do them well. These people are the people who are reliable and durable.

We want and need to be those types of people ourselves.

Do you not FEEL like you can do something perfectly or well right now?

That’s your signal to go out and do it anyway.


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“Less functional” does not mean “less worthy.”



We don’t have the “right” to maliciously, purposefully harm other people in the course of fulfilling our wants and needs.

For as healthy and important it is to recognize and stand up for our wants and needs, it is equally healthy and important to do so in a way that recognizes the fundamental humanity and dignity of other people. It is enormously difficult to create and maintain healthy self-esteem for ourselves while degrading the humanity of others.

We deserve the same in return— acknowledgement of and respect for our basic humanity and dignity— but it is often the case that we simply won’t get it.

It is enormously important that we understand that our worth, our humanity, and our dignity is not derived from or dependent upon how other people perceive or treat us.

If we fall into the trap of believing that our wroth somehow has something important to do with how others perceive or treat us…then we’re at the mercy of people who don’t know us, who may not value the things we value, whose worldview may have nothing in common with our experience.

On an even more basic level: if we fall into the trap of believing that our worth, humanity, and/or dignity is tied up in how others perceive or treat us, then we’ve conceded that humans do not have inherent worth— that “worth” is a social construct, one that can change with the times, with cultural norms and attitudes, and with experiences.

That’s not how human worth works.

Humans have value because they exist.

Our modern brains sometimes reject this concept, because of how we are raised and socialized. We’re raised and socialized to believe that humans may or may not have worth based on the kind of value they provide; how attractive they are; how useful they can be.

Many of us perceive “worthy” as a synonym for “useful.” We interpret “value,” when it comes to human beings, as being tantamount to “value” as applies to machinery or farm animals: literally, “able to provide value.”

Moreover, many of us buy into this idea that our “worth” can be impacted by things that happen to us. Again, this notion has its roots in regarding humans as tantamount to beasts of burden. If  an ox that is used to plow a field has a trauma happen to it— say, it breaks its leg— it is less useful to a farmer. It has assumed less “worth.” It is less “worthy,” in the literal sense.

Hence, our belief that trauma can somehow make us less “worthy.”

Again, though: human worth doesn’t work like that.

Trauma does not make humans less worthy.

Trauma can, objectively, make humans less functional for a period of time. Trauma may induce symptoms in human beings that makes it difficult for us to fulfill our day to day obligations and take advantage of opportunities. It’s tough to live a full, active life when you’re being crippled with flashbacks and nightmares and wracked with anxiety.

But “less functional” does not imply “less worthy.”

Human beings should not be judged based on how much “value” they can provide for someone else. Their “worth” should not rise and fall based on circumstance.

Humans have dignity because they exist.

Humans have worth because they exist.

No amount of trauma or abuse can make a human being less “worthy,” regardless of how much that trauma or abuse may impact a human being’s functionality for a period of time.

This is a vitally important concept to grasp if you’re trying to recover from trauma. Because the fact is, for awhile, your functionality is probably going to be compromised. It’s just how trauma works.

It doesn’t mean you’re less worthy. It doesn’t mean you are not deserving of dignity. “Less functional” is NOT the same as “less human.”

Part of treatment for trauma is reminding people of this truth: that their basic humanity remains intact, regardless of what has happened to them.

Part of recovery from trauma is breaking apart the beliefs that are often formed in the aftermath of abuse: that a person is somehow “deserving” of pain and failure. Because it just isn’t true.

You are not what happened to you.

You have worth no matter what happened to you.

You have worth no matter what anybody thinks of you.

You have worth no matter how you happen to be functioning, or not functioning, at the moment.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, I’m going to need to you play a game with me, called “act as if.” Addicts have to play this game in the early stages of their recovery all the time.

For a moment, for a little while, “act as if” you have worth and dignity, regardless of what has happened to you. Live in that world for awhile. Even if it feels foreign and wrong— try it out.

You can get through this. You deserve to get through this.

Want to know how I know?

Because you’re reading these words. You’re a human being. And that means YOU. HAVE. WORTH.


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