The effective emotional management tool you’re ALREADY using.


Let’s talk about one of my favorite emotional management tools. Let’s talk about making lists. 

List making might sound kind of simple— too simple, maybe, to be an effective tool. 

That’s the thing. It is BECAUSE list making IS a simple tool that it works so well. 

The more straightforward a tool is, the more likely we are to actually USE it. 

The reason many more supposedly “sophisticated” emotional management tools stay in our tool boxes is because, when crunch time comes around, they’re a pain in the neck to remember and utilize. 

So why is list making so effective? 

Because we are already doing it. All the time, in fact. 

Every moment of every day, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, our brains are always doing two things: asking questions and making lists. 

Our questions and our lists direct our focus. 

Our focus, in turn, largely determines our mood, our level of motivation, and ultimately our behavior choices. 

What kind of lists do we make in our heads? 

We make lists of reasons to like— or dislike— ourselves. 

We make lists of our perceived options in a situation. 

We make lists of what could go wrong— or right— in a situation. 

We make lists of places we’d rather be and activities we’d rather be doing. 

Chances are, as you’re reading this right now, you’re working on a list in your head. You might be listing reasons I’m right (or wrong) about this whole “list making” tool; you might be listing the times in the recent past when you’ve made a list in your head; or you might even be listing comments you plan to make on this post, after you’re done reading it. 

See? We make lists literally  all the time. 

So how are your lists working for you?

Do the lists you habitually make tend to support you in feeling motivated, focused, and happy?

Or do the lists you make in your head tend to make you feel suspicious, drained, or angry?

Understand: the lists we make in our heads are never the SOLE determinant of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. 

But it is absolutely the case that we can fine tune our list making ability, in order to make it more likely that our lists fuel and support us, rather than exhaust and frustrate us. 

There is no reason our lists have to consist mostly of how much things suck. 

There is no reason why our lists have to emphasize what we can’t do. 

There’s definitely no reason why our lists have to enumerate reasons fo dislike ourselves. 

The kinds of lists as habitually make are heavily influenced by the people we grew up with. Children tend to make mental lists similar to those of their parents. Certain types of lists tend to run in families. 

Who taught you how to make mental lists, and what should go on those lists?

Were they worth modeling? 

We are never “stuck” with what we were taught or what we saw modeled when we were young. 

Your life does not have to run on autopilot. You do not have to function in “default” mode. 

We can choose what lists serve us in our everyday lives. 

Lists of what could go RIGHT. 

Lists of the things we appreciate or respect about people. 

Lists of what we know and do well. 

Lists of our strengths and successes. 

There are lots of lists that can empower, support, soothe, and productively focus us…if we get into the habit of consciously choosing which lists to make in our heads every day. 

But don’t take my word for it. Like every single tool or skill we discuss on this blog, the proof is in the pudding. 

That is to say: try it out. 


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The most underrated recovery tool in your toolbox. For real.

One of the simplest, but most important and effective, tools you’ll ever use in your recovery or therapy is the check in. 

To use the check in, here’s what you need to do— are you ready? 

You check in. 

Got it? 

Okay, maybe it’s not THAT simple. But it’s close. Let me explain how this tool works. 

90% of the problem we face in everyday life, especially when we’re trying to change or improve our life, is the fact that we get stuck in patterns. 

We get up in our head. 

We get into cognitive loops and emotional spirals. 

This happens when we get a craving for a substance or a snack to alleviate anxiety. It happens when we get into a funk where we’re berating ourselves and judging ourselves harshly. It happens when the day started out lousy, and now NOTHING seems to be going right. 

Those are all patterns. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: therapy and recovery are all about recognizing and interrupting patterns. 

Scratching that self-destructive record in your head so it doesn’t play the same way anymore. 

So when we get into a loop, a spiral, a funk, or when we get up into our heads, how do we interrupt that pattern? 

Hell, how do we even KNOW we’ve fallen into a pattern that we NEED to interrupt? 

We check in. 

You set an alarm. A literal, actual alarm. Most cell phones, even the old ones, have alarms that can vibrate so only you can hear or feel them. 

You pick an interval— I like to go with fifteen minutes as the default— and you set the alarm to go off every fifteen minutes. And when the alarm goes in, you check in with yourself. 

What are you thinking? 

What are you noticing? 

What’s the record in your head playing? 
Does it need interrupting? 

What DO I need right now? 

Mind you, those questions might not be easy to answer. But answering them isn’t exactly the point. The POINT is to interrupt the pattern that’s happening in your head by even ASKING them. 

It sounds simple, and it is simple. But the results of checking in on a consistent basis— and thus interrupting the negative patterns that are looping in your head, even for a minute— can be powerful. 

Some people are resistant to the idea of checking in with themselves. They think, I know what I’m thinking and feeling. I don’t need to check in. 

Yes. Yes, you do. 

Do not trust yourself to stay on top of your thoughts, feelings, triggers, and needs. Set an external schedule for checking in with yourself— the more often the better at first— and stick to it. 

It is AMAZING what consistently checking in eventually accomplishes for you. 

Checking in with yourself gives you an opportunity to push the “reset” button. 

It gives you a chance to shake out of spirals that you might not have even known you were falling into. 

It’s easy, it’s free…and it gives you a fighting chance to push back agains the weasels in your brain before they get momentum going. 

Don’t take my word for it— try it out. 

The check in is the tool that makes it possible to pull OTHER tools out if and when you need them. 


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Get outta here with that “go big or go home” nonsense.


The advice, “go big or go home,” has always puzzled me a little bit. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand what the saying implies. 

Sometimes we need to really throw our back into something if we’re going to succeed. 

Sometimes half measures don’t cut it. 

If you feel strongly about something, be prepared to sacrifice and work hard for it. 

All of that, I’m on board with. The “go big” part isn’t what bothers me. 

It’s the “…or go home” part that bugs me. 

It bugs me because, in its entirety, the expression implies that there is never a situation where you might want to be cautious. 

Where you might want to try a situation or a tool out, before fully committing to it. 

It seems to imply that no project is worth doing if you’re not into making it a central focus of your time and energy. That if you’re not prepared to go “all in” on something, you should just stay home. 

I mean, really? 

There are plenty of things in my life that I enjoy, that I find value in, and that enhance my life…but that I’m not into “mastering” or even “going all in” on. 

My buddy and I race go-karts. He’s a lot better at it than I am. I enjoy the hobby, but I don’t particularly enjoy the uber-compeitive aspect of some of the higher speed races— so at a certain point, I bow out. 

Could I become a superstar amateur go-kart racer if I was interested in going “all in” on the hobby? Maybe, maybe not— but that’s not the point. The point is, go-karting is never going to be something I’ll go “all in” on…so does that mean I should just “go home?” 

I don’t think so. 

The truth is, there are LOTS of things that you’re going to enjoy, that you’re going to find value in, and that will enhance your life…but which you’ll have neither the resources nor the inclination to “master” or go “all in” on. 

Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things? 

Come on. 

We’re looking to build lives here that are interesting, that are fun, that have meaning, that have variety. 

There are totally going to be things that you will want to go “all in” on, and things that you totally will be able to “master;” and there will also be things that you’ll want to dabble in, or do as a hobby, or experiment with. 

That’s how we build interesting, meaningful lives in the real world. 

In my experience, far too many people put far too much pressure on themselves when it comes to “mastering” the various experiences in their lives. 

Many people have been raised in environments where they’re told the goal of learning something is to be able to do it perfectly, or to “master” it, or to consistently do it at a high or competitive level…and that if they can’t or don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t even bother. 

What a load of nonsense. 

Do things that interest you. 

Do things that seem fun or that you think you might learn something from. 

Contrary to the rantings of some self-help teachers, “amateur,” “dabbler,” and “beginner” are not insults. 

(I strongly suggest you not follow anyone who treats these labels as if they WERE insults.) 

Some things you’ll be great at, some things you won’t; some things you’ll enjoy even though you’ll never be great at them. 

Time and energy you enjoyed expending is not “wasted.” 

Focus on building a life you like and doing stuff you like— and please, don’t buy into this silliness about “go big or go home.” 

Very few people who live under that kind of constant pressure are happy. 


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Scratch that record. Ruin the damn thing.


Our brains can be really good at replaying, over and over again, experiences from our past that were embarrassing or painful. 

Sometimes our brains put those experiences on a loop, and just repeat them, over and over and over again— seemingly for no reason. 

Does your brain ever do this? Mine does. 

(Most people’s brains do this, at least every now and then.) 

Our brains are particularly good at replaying experiences we wish we could do over. 

In my own case, my brain loves replaying experiences I had with a particular mentor. It was a relationship that served me well, academically and professionally, for a relatively long period of time— but which ended unpleasantly. 

This kind of thing happens. Sometimes we outgrow relationships. Sometimes the people we become are incompatible with the bonds we’d established once upon a time— and sometimes we don’t handle those transitions well. 

So my brain does what a lot of peoples’ brains do. It replays interactions I had with my former mentor, again and again and again— even though there is no way to change the outcome of those interactions. 

This is a minor example of what happens when people experience trauma or loss. 

Many people reading this have experience with much more dramatic, much more intrusive, and much more upsetting memories that play, over and over again, in their brains. 

What’s happening here is, we are going through a pattern of focus and experience in our nervous systems, wherein one memory or sensation is triggering the next, and the next, and the next, like dominos falling one after the other. 

You can think of this chain of memories and sensations as being similar to matches in a pack. If one match in a pack gets lit, it’s virtually impossible for the match next to it NOT to ignite, because of their proximity and their predisposition to flame. 

When we get into these memory loops, we are running a pattern. 

If we want out of the loop, we HAVE to find a way to interrupt the pattern. 

Many people have devised many ways of interrupting patterns they get into. 

Ever wonder why some people harm themselves physically? There are multiple reasons why people do this, but very often it’s because harming themselves is the only way they can think of in that moment to interrupt an awful pattern that is unfolding in their heads. 

Ever wonder why some people dive into mindless pleasure seeking behaviors, such as acting out sexually or abusing drugs? Again, there are many reasons this happens, but the common denominator is often that they are looking to interrupt a pattern that is dominating their focus and physiology. 

An important key to recovery for most people is to find ways to interrupt patterns that are unfolding in their heads…WITHOUT putting themselves at risk, WITHOUT doing things that harm their physical bodies (because it is virtually impossible to develop self-esteem and feel worthy if we’re repeatedly harming ourselves), WITHOUT creating bigger problems than we’re trying to solve. 

A big part of therapy is experimenting with pattern interrupts that actually work, and that do not create bigger problems than they solve. 

I train my patients and clients to sink into trance-like headspace, where they have a better chance to control the imagery and other sensations unfolding in their heads…so they can use various techniques of “scrambling” the patterns that are making them miserable and driving them to risky behavior. 

I call this “scratching the record.” 

A record will play the same way every time you put the needle down on it, because it has grooves. Patterns of grooves. 

But if you scratch it…it doesn’t play the same way. 

And if you scratch it enough…it won’t ever play the same way again. 

Once we realize that this is exactly what we’re doing in therapy and recovery…we’re more than halfway home. 


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Being grateful “enough.”


I remember, when I was young, my dad often told me I wasn’t “grateful” enough for the things I’d been given. 

Very often, actually. Often enough that I remember being told it at various ages. 

I remember feeling confused and sad when he said this. 

I felt plenty grateful for what I had. 

I don’t think I took it for granted. I was aware that there were people who didn’t have either the opportunities or the possessions I was lucky enough to have. 

I didn’t understand what my dad meant when he said I was “ungrateful.” He never got more specific than that. 

Now that I’m grown up— sort of, anyway— I think I understand why he said that. 

I think my dad’s assertion that I was “ungrateful” came in response to me acknowledging the pain I was experiencing as a kid. 

As a kid, I was sad a lot. 

I was anxious. I was lonely. 

I had real trouble relating and connecting to other people. And I would often end up in kind of this awful loop where I’d anxiously avoid other people; and then other people would avoid me; then I’d feel lonely and inadequate; and so I’d avoid other people some more. 

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

As you might imagine, it’s hard for a kid caught in that cycle to NOT feel depressed. 

On top of that,  I wasn’t great at school. It was generally acknowledged that I was smart— but it was also well established that I was “lazy” and often failed to do homework or study for exams. 

Neither I, nor my parents, knew what ADHD was at the time. 

In any event, I think my dad looked at the fact that he had done his job: he had provided me with a stable home, with material comfort, and with quality educational opportunities. 

And in return, all I was giving him was a “bad attitude,” an unwillingness to be open and social with the family, and a refusal to “work” at school. 

Thus, he surmised I was ungrateful. 

I imagine a lot of people reading this might be able to identify. 

There are a lot of people who assume that, if we acknowledge pain in our lives, or if we are observably affected by past or present “trauma,” that we are somehow “ungrateful.” 

Let me tell you what nobody told me: you can be both wounded and grateful. 

The fact that you have things to be grateful for does not mean you’ll never struggle— or that it’s somehow wrong or distasteful to acknowledge you are struggling. 

Gratitude and pain are not mutually exclusive. 

My dad died four years ago around this time of year. What had begun as a trip home for Thanksgiving in 2015 turned into the final hours I spent with him. 

He couldn’t speak near the end. Our last conversation was him writing questions and responses on the back of an envelope as I responded to him verbally. 

I still have that envelope, with his shaky handwriting, tucked away in my top desk drawer. 

He was in a lot of pain in the last few years of his life. 

I have no idea whether he developed perspective on whether pain and gratitude can coexist. 

I hope he did. 

But for everyone reading this: do not fall into the black and white, all-or-nothing thinking trap of assuming that if you’re struggling, you’re insufficiently grateful. 

Every day I work with people who are suffering, but who are grateful. 

Grateful for their kids; for their pets; for their hobbies; for their art; for music; for their faith. 

Sometimes they even say they’re grateful for therapy. 

I believe them. 

Feel grateful for the things you have, to the extent that you have the emotional bandwidth to do so. 

Don’t let anyone tell you what gratitude “should” and “shouldn’t” mean to you. 


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Why so many “gurus” treat you like you’re stupid.


You are not struggling because you’re stupid. 

You are not struggling because you’re fundamentally weak or flawed. 

You are not struggling because you’re stubborn. 

You’d hope some of that would be self-evident…but when you look around the self help landscape, you see PLENTY of teachers and gurus essentially communicating to their followers that the reason they are struggling is because they are somehow incomplete; or broken; or stubborn; or maybe just stupid. 

You see practitioners taking what they try to sell as a “tough love” approach…but which really seems to boil down to mocking, insulting, and berating. 

There’s a reason they do this. 

And it’s not because their followers “deserve” it. 

The main reason this happens is because these practitioners are looking to “reel in” a certain type of follower. 

Specifically, they’re looking for the type of follower who already believes that they are damaged. 

(Or stupid, or stubborn, or…you get the idea.)

As you can imagine, there are plenty of people out there who DO feel damaged— and, as you might be able to imagine, a disproportionate number of them can be found seeking out self-help resources. 

When someone who already feels damaged, flawed, or stupid, encounters a “guru” who confirms their negative self-belief, it often pushes a particular button in the potential follower— “this guru KNOWS how terrible I am…therefore they MUST know how to fix me!” 

From the outside, it sounds odd…but I have a feeling more than a few people know what I’m talking about with this phenomenon. 

This is the reason why “gurus” who mock, insult, and berate their potential followers— often in the name of “tough love”— still find customers willing to buy what they’re selling: they’ve aligned with their potential followers’ negative self-perceptions and self-beliefs. 

Here’s the problem, though: the vast majority of the time, our negative self-perceptions and self-beliefs stem from distorted thoughts and traumatic pasts. 

Those negative self-feelings and self-beliefs do not represent reality. They represent ideas that have been programmed into us by people and institutions that did not have our best interests in mind. 

The job of a true guru, mentor, or guide is not to reinforce those negative self-beliefs. 

The job of a true guru, mentor, or guide is to help us shatter those negative self-beliefs by reminding us who we really are and what we’re really all about…and that does not include making us feel worse so we’ll “buy in” to the guru’s approach to begin with. 

I do not think you’re stupid. 

I do not think you’re broken. 

I do not think you’re fundamentally any weaker or more flawed than any other normal human being. 

And I don’t think you should buy any products or services from anyone who tries to reinforce negative beliefs you may have about yourself. 

I think you are valuable. 

I think you are worthy. 

I think you have potential— no matter how old you are, no matter what’s happened to you, no matter what regrets you have, and no matter how long you’ve been struggling. 

All that might be harder to believe than the message, “Yeah, you’re probably as broken as you feel.” 

But it’s the truth. 

I believe in you. 


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You’re weak, I’m weak, we’re all weak– and that’s OK.


photo-1521805103424-d8f8430e8933Are you weak? 

Because guess what: I am. 

Sometimes, anyway. 

I’m willing to bet sometimes you’re weak, too. Assuming you’re a human being, that is— or any living, breathing being reading these words, for that matter. 

We are weak sometimes. 

Isn’t it crazy (and I’m a psychologist, I don’t throw around that word lightly) how phobic we are of that word, let alone that concept, of “weakness?” 

So many of us have been conditioned, over and over and over again, to hide our “weakness” from the world. 

We’ve been conditioned, over and over again, that if we let anyone see that we’re “weak,” at some times, in some ways, that we’ll not be respected. 

Because who do we respect in our culture? We respect STRENGTH, dammit!

Every single day I watch people struggle to hide and minimize their “weakness.” 

People don’t admit to feeling bad because they don’t want to appear mentally or emotionally “weak.” 

People hide relapses, either of symptomatology or behavior, because they don’t want to seem “weak.” 

And, of course, the big one: people don’t ask for help, because they don’t want to look “weak.” 

Let me tell you something, as a marathon runner: completing a long race is ENTIRELY about managing your weakness. 

There are times during a marathon— and DEFINITELY after a marathon— when my legs and core feel weak. By which I mean they feel drained, sore, depleted, shaky. Unable to keep going. 

If my goal is to successfully cross the finish line, I need to be realistic with myself about when and where I am feeling weak. 

Marathons have no patience for playing make believe when it comes to the subjects of strength and weakness. 

You don’t need to pretend you’re not “weak” at times. 

Being objectively weak at certain times and in certain ways does not make you “weak” as a person. 

People are comparatively weak when they are exhausted— and you might well be exhausted. 

People are comparatively weak when they are scared— and you might well be scared. 

People are comparatively weak when they are discouraged— and you might well be discouraged. 

The only way to effectively deal with “weakness” is to admit when we’re feeling, well, weak. 

“Weakness” is not a defect of character. 

It’s what happens when we’ve expended a ton of effort, or when we’ve been asked to do things we weren’t conditioned or equipped to do. 

If someone asked me to lift a heavy weight right now, I might be able to do it, with a great deal of effort— but you betcha my muscles would be sore and weak for quite awhile afterwards. 

I am over people being brainwashed into thinking they have to hide their areas of “weakness,” because our culture only respects “strength.” 

If we’re going to recover, we need to value honesty— with ourselves and our support systems— over the illusion of always being “strong.” 

Own your weakness. 

Embrace it. 

Don’t try to deny it, disown it, ignore it, or shame yourself for it. 

When we fully accept what we can— and can’t— do at a particular moment…that’s when we open ourselves up to developing real strength. 

I’ll bet sometimes you’re weak. 

But I’ll bet you’re also hella strong, too. 

In fact, I know you are— because you’ve survived this long, and you’re reading these words. 

You’re a rock star. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. 


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