What you can– and can’t– “choose.”

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You’ve probably seen post after post of motivational types telling you that you CHOOSE the meaning behind what happens in your life. That is, you can’t be upset by an event unless you CHOOSE to be. 

I think that’s a pretty arrogant assertion, myself. 

There is a lot of misery out there that people didn’t “choose.” 

And it’s pretty hard to spin traumatic events that happen to us at vulnerable times, such as childhood. No child “chooses” to be traumatized in the aftermath of abuse, for example. 

That said: there IS a subset of events our lives, the meanings of which we DO get to choose. 

And the choices we make regarding what those events MEAN can have a profound effect on how we feel and function every day. 

What kinds of events am I talking about? 

I’m mostly talking about things that we do that sabotage ourselves. 

We ALL do self-sabotaging stuff sometimes. I do it, you do it, everyone you know does it, even if they don’t admit to it. 

We do stuff that sets back our goals, stuff that’s incongruent with our values, stuff that we truly wish we wouldn’t have done. It happens in little ways, like cheating on a diet; it happens in big ways, like doing things that interfere with our job performance or important relationships. 

No matter how well we’re doing, no one is immune to at least occasional self-sabotage. 

When we do self-sabotage, and observe the attendant fallout, THAT is when we have a choice about what that self-sabotage means. 

Does it mean we’re bad? 

Does it mean our goals are beyond us? 

Does it mean our values are too hard to live up to? 

It matters, what we decide our self-sabotaging behaviors mean, because it has very practical consequences about what we are and aren’t willing to devote focus and energy to in the future. 

If we decide our failures to be “perfect” all the time in the pursuit of our goals and the living of our values means we’re fundamentally “bad,” our self-esteem will take a hit. 

If we decide it means that we simply can’t achieve our goals, then we’re probably going to just quit trying. 

if we decide it means our values are too lofty, we’ll likely go into an existential funk. 

The thing is: our failure to be “perfect” with our behavior at all times very rarely means any of that. 

Most often self-sabotage means we’ve run into a situation that has outstripped our ability to cope and manage our feelings. No more, no less. 

Self-sabotaging behaviors are usually acts of soothing or desperation. We’re feeling things that we desperately don’t want to feel, and we can’t, in the moment, identify skills or tools to turn the volume down on those feelings. So, we turn to behaviors that may run counter to our goals or values— but which work, in the very short term, to change how we feel. 

The temptation is to blow up those behaviors into existential statements about our global priorities…when in fact they usually represent a very practical problem. 

You don’t have to give up your goals or values just because you got overwhelmed and didn’t know how to cope for a minute. 

And you’re certainly not “bad” because you couldn’t stick with the program 100% of the time. 

THESE are the events and decisions the meaning of which we can choose. 

We can choose to acknowledge the reality that, even if we’ve momentarily behaved in ways that do not reflect our values and goals, those values and goals STILL represent the fundamentals of who we are. 

We can choose to acknowledge the we simply got overwhelmed— and that every does get overwhelmed sometimes. It’s not weak, it’s not “bad,” and it’s note even that uncommon. 

And we can choose that this instance of self-defeating behavior is simply a blip on the radar when it comes to the overall project of life development that we’re pursuing. 

We can choose whether this defines us, or whether this was an anomaly. 

Then we can take the PRACTICAL steps necessary to decrease the chance of it happening again. 

We may not be able to always choose what events mean. 

But when we can, it’s important that we do. 

 

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It takes more than motivation to push back at fear.

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The world is full of people telling you you need to confront your fear. 

Don’t let fear control you, they say. Your greatest desires are just beyond your greatest fears, they say. 

Very few of these “fear experts,” however, seem to offer much concrete advice on HOW to push back against fear. 

They seem to think that the reason you’re not confronting your fears is because, I don’t know, you’re not sufficiently motivated to do so? As if they only need to give you enough good reasons to confront your fear, and then you’ll do it? 

That’s not been my experience as a therapist. 

My experience, rather, has been that the reason most people don’t push back against their fears is because thy simply don’t have many good ideas how to do so. 

Fear is paralyzing. Fear can be overwhelming at times. Fear is hard-wired into our evolutionary brains, and is literally designed as a tool to keep us alive. 

Overcoming fear isn’t just a matter of motivation. 

The good news is, acquiring the skills and tools to handle fear IS possible, once you frame the problem in a manageable way. 

First thing’s first: let’s reduce the problem of “fear” to its component problems. 

For most people “fear” comes down to two component problems: thoughts and physiological sensations. 

Fear thoughts are usually framed in catastrophic terms: “If I do X, then disastrous consequence Y will almost certainly follow.” 

(We usually don’t think in full sentences when we’re afraid, mind you, but when we take a few steps back from the fear to look at what we ARE actually thinking, that’s the basic thought process that emerges.)

Our brains often add layer upon catastrophic layer to our fear thoughts, but in the end, it still boils down to: “I am in danger. This situation or stimulus needs to be avoided if I am to either survive or avoid pain.” 

The primary tools you’re going to need to cope with fear thoughts are self-talk and reality testing. They’re both tools that mainly come manly out of cognitive behavioral therapy, though other forms of therapy (such as neuro-linguistic programming and hypnotherapy) also teach various ways to manage your self-talk and effectively reality-test. 

Self-talk is literally learning to contribute to your own internal dialogue. It’s teaching yourself to respond to catastrophic thoughts by becoming your own “coach” or “therapist” in a fear-provoking situation, and calmly and realistically talking yourself down. 

This doesn’t mean lying to yourself. This means learning to put something in your brain other than the panicky, catastrophized thought of “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” 

Even if a situation IS objectively dangerous, even if you ARE at risk of pain, there is usually a way to talk to yourself that de-escalates the situation rather than ramps you up further. 

The reason why this is such an important tool is because we can’t access the tools we need to productively handle a situation (even if what we need to do is effectively escape!) if we’re panicked and screaming at ourselves. 

Responding to a situation with calm, realistic self-talk is an acquired skill. It requires practice and patience. It may sound like a simple tool, but that doesn’t make it easy. 

Reality-testing is a tool that helps you establish the actuality of the threat in front of you. 

Most of us, when we’re afraid, exaggerate the realistic potential a situation holds for pain or harm. 

This doesn’t mean that we’re WRONG about that potential existing; it just means that, when our fear thoughts get going, it becomes hard to separate the facts of the situation from the catastrophic fiction our brains are conditioned to produce. 

Learning to realistically gauge the threat presented by a situation is essential if we’re going to choose the most effective response. 

Again: neither of these tools, self-talk or reality-testing, is necessarily easy to use when we’re overwhelmed by fear. They take time, effort, and commitment to develop. If they were easy and obvious, then nobody would need therapy. 

Learning to deal with fear is not easy or simple.

The physiological responses we have when we’re fearful— the involuntary shaking or shivering, the sweating, the shallow breathing— have to do with the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. It’s an automatic response to feeling threatened or pressured. 

Learning to ease the sympathetic nervous response to fear calls for the tools of grounding and progressive or systematic relaxation. These, too, are learnable skills— but they don’t come naturally. It takes awhile to master them. 

The good news is: the tools work. 

“Overcoming fear” is NOT just a matter of motivation. 

But it is possible to not let fear paralyze us— when we learn how. 

 

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Addiction isn’t about “good” and “bad.”

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People love to shame others for their perceived “weakness.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in how many people view and deal with addiction. 

It’s easy to think of addiction as something that “deserves” to be shamed. After all, to an outsider, it often looks as if the addict is simply making bad choices. Bad choices, in many peoples minds, should be shamed, because, come on, people need SOME incentive not to make bad choices, right? 

Shaming “bad choices” is nothing new in our culture. Or in any other cultures, really. Demonizing the “bad choices” of others goes back throughout much of history. 

The thing is, we’re all vulnerable to making what others would consider “bad choices,” especially when it comes to regulating our use of or indulgence in behaviors or substances that make us feel good. 

All of us are susceptible to addictive patterns. Every single one of us. 

Our substance of abuse may not be drugs or alcohol. It might be TV; it might be the internet or social media; it might be physical pleasure; it might be compulsive behaviors like gambling or even procrastination. 

It may even be the approval of others that we’re vulnerable to becoming addicted to. 

Anyone who thinks they’re above the potential for addiction is kidding themselves. 

It’s true that people have differing capacities for regulating their behavior. People vary wildly in both their inherent and learned ability to resist impulses and avoid the people, places, and situations that tend to trigger compulsive behavior. 

Sometimes people have an easier time avoiding addiction because they’re lucky; sometimes people have had to learn the hard way to manage their thinking and behavior; sometimes people simply haven’t been exposed to the specific circumstance that have the potential to trigger addictive patterns. 

But resisting addictive patterns has nothing to do with being a “better” person than someone who doesn’t have the capacity to resist additive patterns. 

A lot of people who are getting their butts kicked by addictive patterns don’t even realize it because they can’t even CONCEIVE of themselves as addicts. After all, addicts are enslaved to drugs and alcohol, they’re drunks and junkies and stoners, right? 

Nope. 

An addict is anyone who gets caught up in a self-defeating, self-perpetuating cycle of behavior that outstrips their ability to break out of it. No more, no less. 

Sure, there are overt addictions that tend to be very visible to outside observers; but the vast majority of addictions are hidden in plain sight. 

And the vast majority of addicts work effortfully to keep others— and sometimes themselves— from knowing that they’re addicts. 

Why is this important to acknowledge? 

Because if we’re going to create the lives we want to live, we have to be real with ourselves about what drives and maintains our behavior. 

The main thing that stands in the way of most people creating the lives they want to live is behavior patterns that sabotage their goals and undermine their values…but which they themselves are often at a loss to explain. 

People are often mystified why they do stuff that messes up their lives. 

If we’re truly going to craft lives that are consistent with our values and allow for the achievement of our goals, we have to be real about the fact that we’re often not great at regulating behavior— especially behavior that involves some sort of pleasurable or tension-reducing payoff— and that we need to think of ourselves as “addicts” in some ways to those behaviors. 

As the Twelve Step tradition teaches in its very early stages, we can’t solve a problem we refuse to admit exists. 

Rethink how you think about addiction. 

Demonizing other people— or even ourselves— as simply the perpetuators of “bad choices” misses the point. 

Instead, if we think of both ourselves and our fellow human beings as always being susceptible to compulsive behavior patterns that can yank us away from our goals and values regardless of how smart we are, regardless of our social class, regardless of how confident we are in our “willpower”…then we can get real about how people overcome addictions. 

The good news is, addictions CAN be overcome. 

It takes planning, it takes patience, it takes consistency, it takes support, and it takes a great deal of compassion and the willingness for us to suspend our harsh judgments. 

We need to give up this fantasy of, “some people just make bad choices.” 

When people know better, they do better. 

 

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What “attitude” can– and can’t– do.

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Let’s be crystal clear: “attitude” is not a magic wand. 

Despite what some motivational memes on the Internet may imply, “attitude” will not automatically overcome physical or logistical limitations. 

Despite our attitude, we all only have twenty four hours in a day; we all have a finite amount of physical energy; most of us have a finite amount of financial resources at any given time. 

It annoys me when attitude is presented as a cure-all for limits. It just isn’t true. 

In addition to being simply untrue, implying that attitude in itself is enough to overcome any limitations opens the door to some particularly unhelpful thoughts and beliefs— notably, that if we happen to find ourselves constrained by limits at the moment, it’s merely our attitude that s holding us back. 

Trust me: there are real things holding you back, aside from attitude. 

Falling into the trap of believing it’s all attitude-over-matter is often a route to blaming and shaming ourselves in ways that are robustly unhelpful. 

None of this means that attitude doesn’t matter, however. Quite the opposite. 

Attitude is a tool. It’s just like any other tool we have at our disposal to cope with challenges, solve problems, nudge toward our goals, and live our values: it’s useful when it’s the right tool for the job…and even though it’s not the right tool for EVERY job, knowing how and when to use the tool of attitude is part of successful personal growth. 

Attitude can’t solve every problem you have. 

But consciously choosing our attitude can have a tremendous impact on how quickly and elegantly we do solve our problems. 

Thinking of attitude as a tool has several important implications, chief among them that attitude is a choice. 

Many people aren’t used to thinking of attitude as a choice. They kind of think of attitude as the cumulative sum of their thoughts, feelings, and impressions about a particular subject, something that is arrived at passively. And for many people, this is the case— because they haven’t been taught to think of attitude as something they can have all that much control over. 

Our attitude toward something is not the same as our gut-level reaction to it. 

We might have a gut-level reaction to something that varies from positive and welcoming to negative and rejecting. But that’s just our reaction. 

Our attitude is how we deal with our reaction— how we then DECIDE how to think about and RESPOND to the presence of something in our lives. 

For example: we can have a REACTION to, say, a coworker that is resoundingly negative. They may irritate us, and we may be annoyed that we have to spend time around them and energy dealing with them. 

However, even if that’s our initial reaction, we can choose a productive attitude toward having to deal with that coworker every day. We can choose to selectively emphasize, in our own minds, their positive (or, maybe, just their less annoying) traits. We can shift our focus to the aspects of our job that don’t require heavy interactions with that coworker. We can decide that we are going to approach going to work every day with an attitude of relatively positive expectation, selectively emphasizing in our minds the interactions that went well (or, at least, that were less painful than others). 

Understand: our attitude toward this coworker doesn’t solve the problem of having to go to work every day and deal with them. Limits are real, and attitude doesn’t immediately transcend them. 

However, it is absolutely true that managing our expectations and focus and approach to the situation— our attitude— can dramatically impact how painful and inconvenient we find the task of going into work and having to deal with this person. 

Attitude isn’t everything, but it matters. 

Why do so many people want us to believe that “attitude is everything,” then? 

Some people really enjoy the fantasy of being able to alter everything about their world with a simple shift of perspective. 

For that matter, some people have experienced how powerful a shift in perspective— a tool cognitive therapists call “reframing”— can be, and they might get a little carried away with exactly HOW powerful a tool it can be. 

Remember, attitude is a tool. It’s just like self-talk, grounding, containment, reframing, goal-setting, and time management. 

All of those are incredibly important tools— but none of them, on their own, will solve every problem that we have. 

Develop your tools. Use our tools. 

But also remember that tools are only as good as their appropriateness to the job at hand. 

 

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A messy day doesn’t equal a messy life.

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Your journey is probably going to be messy. 

We don’t really like thinking about the potential messiness of our journeys. We want to think that, once we decide to push the “reset” button and improve our lives, get sober, or get into recovery from trauma, the journey is going to be a path of ever-improving days and weeks and months. 

We like to imagine that as long as we’re on the upswing, each day is going to be better than the last. 

If only that were true. 

It’s true that once we make the decision to get into recovery, we’re going to end up having way more good days than bad, at least in the big picture. That’s the basic point, the reason to get into recovery in the first place. 

But it’s simply not the case that we’re going to like every day, or that we’re going to like ourselves, our reactions, and our behavior every day. 

Even in the midst of dramatic upswings in our quality of life, we’re going to have days that feel lousy. 

We’re going to have times when we feel embarrassed and awkward. 

We’re going to have days when we wonder if all, or any, of our efforts are even working. 

No matter how much better we’re getting, no matter how many good decisions we’re making, no matter how many bad influences we’re avoiding, we’re simply going to have days when the journey is just messy. 

So why bother getting into recovery at all? 

Because messy days do not equate to a messy life. 

What does equate to a messy life is a life in which we are not making any attempt to control our process or outcome; a life in which we have simply surrendered to the things that have happened to us in the past; a life in which we have decided we have no hope to achieve or goals or live our values. 

Messy days are an acceptable price to pay for the larger benefit of being able to live a life on our terms, not the terms of a substance or a past abuser or dysregulated brain chemistry. 

The trick is to remember that there is a difference between the big picture and our day to day experience. 

An example of this phenomenon is physical exercise and diet. 

Day to day, it’s easier and more pleasurable to eat an uncontrolled amount of whatever we feel like eating at the moment. Restricting what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat is a pain the neck. It can lead to inconvenience, irritation, and even awkwardness (such as when we attempt to reconcile a healthy eating pattern with our social obligations). 

Similarly, day to day, making yourself do more physical exercise than is necessary in the course of a day, getting out of breath, getting sweaty, paying to join a gym, taking the time to go to a gym…it’s all a pain. 

The day to day experience of living a healthy lifestyle can be a hassle. It can be a bummer. Messy. 

In the big picture, though, NOT monitoring one’s diet and REFUSING to get the kind of physical exercise we need can lead to much bigger and more pervasive problems than the messiness of day to day experience. 

Physical exercise and mindfulness of dietary habits can help protect our health, our mood, our ability to live and perform. In the big picture, physical exercise and mindfulness of diet is obviously the more adaptive and self-nurturing way to live…even if it causes messiness in ur day to day experience. 

Making that distinction— between the big picture and the day to day— is crucial. 

The good news is, handling it when we have a messy day to day experience is easier than we might think. 

Again, taking the example of physical exercise and diet, learning to cope with the fact that we don’t get to eat whatever we want, whenever we want to, is just a matter of learning to control our focus. No more, no less. 

Learning to tolerate the discomfort that comes with a physical workout is a matter of controlling our focus. No more, no less. 

Controlling our focus is a learnable skill. 

And our motivation to learn and practice it comes from radically accepting that some days are just gong to be messy…and putting up with the messy day to day is absolutely worth it in the big picture. 

 

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Closeness and loneliness and connection are, well…complicated.

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Maybe you’re tough to be close to. That happens. 

It especially happens when we’ve had experiences in our lives that have programmed us with beliefs about what it means to be close to other people. 

Many of us, for whatever reason, grow up with programming about closeness to other people that discourages us from being close to them, or even attempting to be close to them. 

Some of us have come to believe that allowing ourselves to be close to other people only opens ourselves up for the pain of mockery and eventual betrayal. 

Some of us have developed the belief that truly “strong” people need to live a lonely, isolated existence, like “leaders” and “geniuses” are sometimes reputed to. 

Still others have simply had so many painful, traumatic experiences in their lives that they feel the have to live lonely, isolated lives simply to function. 

Whatever the reason, a large subset of people find themselves in adulthood having developed a variety of psychological and behavioral defenses against human closeness that they then have very mixed feelings about. 

On the one hand, these defenses can keep us feeling “safe,” at least relatively. Keeping other people at arm’s length lets us in some ways feel like we’re more in charge of our lives, our environments, our schedule, and our energy. It helps us feel more in control in some ways. 

On the other hand, however, most people also experience an innate, hard-wired drive to connect with others. The continued frustration of this drive can leave people feeling lonely and lost, and lead some people to assume that they’re somehow defective or damaged because they struggle to make and keep close connections. 

To be very clear: it’s normal to both crave and kind of fear making connections with other people. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for either impulse. 

Both the craving for close connection and anxiety about close connections are experienced by most people at various times in their lives. Neither makes someone “needy” or “defective.” 

There isn’t, actually, any “right” or objectively “healthy” level of human connectedness. 

The level of connection to other human beings that is right for you, may not be right for someone else. Your mileage regarding how much close connection you need or want in your life will absolutely vary when compared to others. 

Coming to peace and finding balance with our need for and fear of connectedness starts, as with most important concepts in personal development, with radical self-acceptance and self-compassion. 

We need to radically accept that we have exactly the craving for connectedness, and exactly the level of anxiety about connectedness, as we have. We need to steadfastly refuse to pathologize what we experience as natural impulses. 

Then we need to ask ourselves, with compassion and a commitment to self-acceptance and self-support: “What do I need, and how do I respect and honor my needs when it comes to connection with others?” 

It may be the case that you need and crave a greater degree of connectedness. 

It may be the case that you need and crave a greater degree of autonomy or space. 

When we’ve become clear about our needs— when we’ve objectively evaluated what we need and want, with compassion, self-acceptance, and a steadfast refusal to judge ourselves harshly— we need to ask ourselves, on a practical level: “What problems do I need to solve in order to get my needs met?” 

Framing our obstacles to getting our needs met as problems to be solved— and problems that CAN be solved— opens us up to entirely new dimensions of possibility. 

Anxiety about talking to new people (or even NOT-new people!) is a problem to be solved. No more, no less. 

Anxiety about allowing others to get too close or too enmeshed with us is a problem to be solved. No more, no less. 

We know how to go about solving the problem of anxiety.

We know how to go about solving the problems presented by complicated boundaries. 

And— because it wouldn’t be a  Dr. Glenn Doyle blog without sounding like a broken record in this respect— most problem-solving in these domains comes back to developing and practicing basic skills: self-acceptance, self-talk, reality testing, and time and resource management. Self-care. 

Be real with yourself about your own relationship with the very idea of connection. 

Be real with yourself about the obstacles that exist, both inside and outside yourself, to experiencing the level of connectedness you’d prefer. 

Be honest and compassionate with yourself— at all times. 

You deserve honesty and compassion at all times…especially from yourself. 

 

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You know it’s gonna be all right.

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It’s not wrong or foolish or naive’ to want to change the world. Lord knows there’s a lot out there that could use changing. 

Many people can encounter a problem, however, when they get so wrapped up in changing the world that they deemphasize the necessity to invest in and change themselves, in order to live their values and achieve their goals. 

There is a distortion cognitive therapists often encounter called “dichotomous thinking.” It occurs when people come to believe that they must function with a black and white worldview, in which no gray area exists. 

It’s a worldview that is very zero-sum— in order for one thing to be true, all other things must be false. 

Black and white thinking is really good at contributing to depression and anxiety. It very frequently leads people to think that if they’re not a complete success, they must be a total failure. People who think in black and white terms often assume that if they’re not completely in control of a situation or a problem, that must mean that situation or problem is completely out of control. 

It’s a miserable way to live. 

Black and white thinking also tends to encourage people to view societal change and personal change as a zero sum game. 

If it is partially society’s fault that I’m experiencing difficulty, their thinking goes, then I am powerless to attempt to change my life on my own. 

This is a false choice. 

Even in the midst of changing society for the better— efforts that most often need to be big-picture and long-term— we still have opportunities to effectively work on changing ourselves, adapting to situations, developing our skillsets, clarifying and living our values. 

Because society needs to be changed doesn’t mean that WE don’t need to change. 

No matter how passionately we believe in the necessity of changing society, and no matter how onerous we imagine our own responsibility to change the world is, we STILL have to make the time and effort to manage our own lives and resources in ways that allow us to live our values and achieve our goals. 

How do we find this balance? 

First thing’s first: we have to avoid the feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed that can happen when we contemplate how screwed up the world is in many respects. 

I know, I know. The world has its problems right now. Politically; culturally; socially; spiritually. 

No matter what one’s political viewpoints or religious affiliations or socioeconomic class, it’s increasingly obvious that there is a lot of work to do out there in the world. 

And there is no doubt that many people take very seriously their responsibly to be part of the solutions, not part of the problems. 

But avoiding feeling overwhelmed involves getting very realistic about the roles that we, as individuals can play in solving the world’s problems. 

We can do what we can do. 

Some of us can do more than others for various reasons. Some of us are more limited in what we can do. 

But wherever we are, whoever we are, we need to be aware of and accept those limits, or else we run a very real danger of becoming needlessly burned out. 

As we do the work we need to do to radically accept the limits of our power and responsibility in changing the world, we also need to remember that we are of absolutely no use to the social, political, or spiritual causes dear to our hearts if we aren’t also working on and taking care of ourselves every day. 

I know, I know. Social movements and political revolutions have a long history of glorifying sacrifice and selflessness. The narrative out there is that “the cause” is more important that any individual’s life. 

I would respectfully disagree. Just as we have a responsibility to the larger causes that we care about, we have serious and real responsibilities toward ourselves and the life we have been given stewardship of. 

Remember, even in the midst of his chaotic song “Revolution,” John Lennon repeatedly assured us, “You know it’s gonna be all right.” 

It will be all right…but we need to take our own needs and quality of life as seriously as anybody else’s for whom we fight politically, socially, culturally, or spiritually. 

You don’t need to choose between making the world a better place and taking care of yourself with compassion and realism. 

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. 

 

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