Use Your Guilt Productively

Untitled (2)Use Your Guilt Productively.  Sounds like kind of a nutty blog post title to me.

I feel guilty about that, but I will get over that and try to write.

As a psychologist and a person with a guilt-checkered past, I am amazed at the types of guilt I see in myself and others.

I/You can feel guilt about:

  • not being able to handle everything
  • not being able to make a decision that makes perfect sense
  • not being able to stick to your own guidelines
  • feeling resentful
  • feeling needy
  • feeling restless
  • feeling good
  • wanting something different
  • being different

I am pretty sure you can add to this non-exhaustive list, because you are a Procrastinator (or because you are a person).

In my opinion, guilt is a highly overrated concept.  I often say to patients, “Your guilt is useless.”  May seem rough to you, but it gets patients to consider what is really operating for them beneath the guilty feelings.  What they discover may include:

  • an imbalanced relationship causing their discomfort
  • important messages which they have not communicated
  • a belief that they should have more control, when that is not possible
  • a lack of awareness of what feels “right,” due to years of suppressing their natural awareness of what is right for them

Guilt seems to be a placeholder for people’s conflicted feelings.  Guilt rushes in to make us feel remorseful and inadequate, and disguises the clarity of our real feelings.  “I want this, but I am forced to do that.”  “I did this, but I really needed to do that instead.”  This tension between two different positions is the definition of conflict.  When we do not address the conflict, the symptoms commence (#IstolethatfromFreud).

So, maybe we can use our guilt feelings in some productive way.  This brings to mind the idea of getting a car out of a muddy area.  You know you are in deep, but you also know this is not the end of the world.  You place some kitty litter, gravel, or branches under your tires.  You pause, take a breath, brace yourself, then you go — onward ho — with your car and yourself intact.  You just want out, and you are going to motivate yourself and your car forward.

Using this idea of moving forward to deal with guilt tends to work.  Guilt tends to be transitory and certainly should be.  No good ever came out of permanently-affixed guilt.  Just saying.  You can learn over time to use guilt feelings as a trigger for some sort of action to take care of your feelings and to take care of yourself.  You can use guilt feelings as a sign you need to evaluate what you are in conflict over.  You might use your guilt feelings to remind yourself to pause and to breathe through your stress.  Maybe guilt isn’t so useless after all.

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Validation is Nice, but Not Necessary

Quote #1 - Anna Freud (1)When we look outside of ourselves for confirmation of what we feel and do, we complicate matters a lot.  We turn from knowing what we feel and do, to looking in other directions, away from ourselves.  At times, we can look everywhere and anywhere else for any sign that things are all okay.  We can even start to wrack our minds about how the future will or will not pan out for us.  And in the moments we turn to the presumed future for answers, we turn away from the entirety of what reality and the present moment have to give us.

There are many, myriad situations which may cause us to lose our bearing:

  • unexpected stress
  • sudden changes
  • when there are no clear right answers
  • when it appears there are no favorable outcomes possible
  • when someone disrespects us
  • when we feel passionately about our cause
  • when we imagine dangers
  • when we feel unsure
  • when we care about other’s opinions a bit too much

Truthfully, it is not that difficult for us to get out of touch with what we think and feel.  I would guess it happens multiple times a day to most of us.  And many of those times happen outside of our awareness, like a mild breeze passing by.  Others cause us to shake and to shiver in our boots, making us feel completely ungrounded, useless, and spent.

If you cannot imagine ever trusting your own sense about your actions and feelings, think again.  You are actually a smooth running operator, tripped up only by your own sense of vulnerability.  You move throughout the day actually trusting your gut about so much.  If you have gotten out of practice in connecting to what your gut is telling you, I want you to know this is fixable.  Start practicing active listening to yourself, your instincts, and your inclinations.  It will be broadly useful to you if you do.

Although we may enjoy and rely on others’ commenting and validating what we do, it is not an essential part of our capacity to act on our own behalf.

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We All Have So Much To Live Up To

We all start innocently enough.  In childhood, I mean.

Then life gets increasingly complicated.  Very fast.

My understanding of Procrastination includes a recurrent theme I see in my Procrastinating clients.  Adult Procrastinators are so often just the adult form of the super-intellectually-bright young children they once were.  They are also often the adult version of the super-entertainingly-gifted children they once were.  For example, they used to breeze through acting jobs on the side when they were little.

When I meet these people as adults, it is difficult for them to comprehend how their childhood experience (no matter how dramatic) might influence their tendency for delay and Procrastination now.

It makes a lot of sense, however.  You are a whipper-snapper of a second-grader and thus, you make an early splash in your town and within your family.  Even if everyone else is pretty cool about it, your own ego starts to build and to strengthen.  This ego building happens at the same time as the excellent performances you give in school or on stage.  You, being the bright child you are, begin to associate feeling good with doing well in your performances.  Actually, you associate feeling well with doing extremely well and noticeably better than others in your work.  This will go on for a few years, but then the trouble starts:

  • you find that your school work is getting harder and you can’t just wing it anymore to get good grades
  • you delay your work because you think your work will not be good enough
  • you become perfectionistic
  • you start to feel increasingly bad about yourself as your own method of improving your self-esteem (i.e. performing well) is now on hold because of Procrastination
  • you begin to stand still developmentally as you wait for your pizzazz to come back
  • you feel stuck in a time warp
  • you wonder how your peers are becoming so accomplished as you were the original wonder kid
  • you start to hide your Procrastination from others
  • you reach a point where you cannot work at all because it would expose you to potential judgment and criticism

Procrastinators wonder how will it be possible for them to change this bond between performance and self-esteem?  Well, most people try to break this bond by not doing their work.  Not a good or useful method.  It gets you stressed and very certainly does not undo the link between performance and self-esteem.  Here’s what I do indicate:

  • Mindfulness of the link between performance and self-esteem is weapon #1 against it.  Move away from the idea that what you do is who you are.
  • Begin to work with pleasure about the work again.  Reduce all of the pressure you tend to apply to your work, your work process, and the meaning of your work.  It’s just work.  Plain work.  It’s not that interesting.
  • Avoid projecting into the future to try to predict how your finished work will affect others.  That is too much to think about when you are trying to write good work.  It is also a true form of distracting yourself from the present, which is rarely good for getting work done.
  • Be patient.  You will need to adjust to getting real feedback from people.  You will learn step-by-step that you can withstand any criticism that may come your way.
  • Accept that you are imperfect and very much like everyone else in that way.
  • Your efforts to move away from Procrastination will be worth it.  You will find yourself thinking more broadly and fully.  You will spend less time managing floating anxious thoughts that clutter your mind.  You will become a better performer all around when you unshackle yourself from the performance-and-self-esteem bind.

When it comes down to it, even if you follow the steps I’ve just suggested, you will still struggle when you work.  It is human to do so.  It is inevitable to do so.  Effort is part of work.  But you will be open to your work, and the frustrations you feel when you work will therefore be much less than when you were hiding behind your former glory.  In reality, we all have so much to live up to.  In some ways, it is a constant pressure.  We will never fully reach our potential, so please don’t let your enormous potential keep you down.

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Consider Yourself an Equal

Many times in my life, I have been nervous or afraid.  Many times, these moments have been when I have been unsure of where I stand in a relationship.  For instance:

  • I have been afraid to call a psychiatrist, because well, that would mean I would need to say something important
  • I have been worried about expressing a dissenting opinion, because well, that would just cause bad feelings
  • I have been ambivalent about complaining to others, because well, that would make me look like I was lazy or didn’t care
  • I have been reluctant to put a request in, because well, that would mean someone else would have to do something on my behalf
  • I have gone along with something I didn’t really need or want, because well, there was a part of me that said I owed the other person my cooperation

Writing this list makes me realize just how often I go through this bad feeling cycle about connecting with other people.  And I’m hoping when you read the list, you’ll realize how much of a time waster worrying about our interactions with people is.  Every time we steer ourselves in the wrong direction, we’ve set ourselves behind time-wise too.

The good news is, I have figured out a way to make mincemeat out of this list: Consider yourself an equal.

This technique is can be a bit of a mind-bender.  That is because most of us are so used to feeling less than other people, whether in the “hierarchy” of life or through our own perceptions of where we stand.  When you assume your opinion matters just because it is your opinion and because you are a reasonable person, the way you express that feeling will be stronger than if you assumed otherwise.  Imagine yourself on a par with the person you are about to call.  Just that envisioning will make the call go that much easier.

There have been times when I have called people and I have considered myself an equal, but they (clearly) did not.  What I have learned from that small subset of experiences is that other people may have trouble considering me an equal.  And – you guessed it – that is their problem.  After the initial sting of being treated as someone who wasn’t smart or knowledgeable wears off, I work to find balance again about how I feel about myself.  Almost 100% of the time, after some time, I get confirming evidence that the nasty, uncomfortable feeling I got in the interaction was part of their problem.  I think that makes sense, as I was treating them as an equal when I called and therefore was very careful not to be nasty.

So, the next time you find yourself saying, “I’ll figure this out myself,” or “I’ll figure it out later,” please remember you can choose another option.  You can choose to move forward with your call or request or statement and consider yourself an equal.  And then the great payoff is you will also consider yourself done with your task.  No change that — the great payoff is you will be giving yourself the right feedback about how good you are.

I’m really curious to hear your stories about struggling to feel like an equal with others.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and stories here.

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Write Your Own Equations

So often making a change involves changing our old equations.  By equations I mean the stories we tell ourselves about how we are supposed to do things.  For instance, if I am going to feel important, I must be involved in as many activities as I can possibly get involved in.  That is an equation.  If I want x, then I must do y.

The problem with the equation method of doing things or of making ourselves feel better is that over time, we get overly attached to our original equations.  As you can imagine, spending twenty years trying to feel important by being involved in as many activities as one can possibly get involved in, ends up landing the well-meaning person in a very complicated, hyper-busy lifestyle.  And the equation method itself is limiting.  Change cannot happen fluidly if we are constantly referring back to and relying on these types of “if x, then y”-type rules.

Here are some more examples of how rule-bound thinking may be affecting you:

  • if you feel you cannot function well socially unless you are dressed to a “T”
  • if you believe you have to be open and available if others need you
  • if you feel you won’t be valued by others if you don’t perform well
  • if you prevent yourself from interacting with others when you think they hold an opinion about you
  • if you are Procrastinating because you are unable to get around your particular “if x, then y” problem, e.g. “I can only begin this if I am in the right frame of mind, and since I am not in the right frame of mind, this can’t get done.” Ouch.

The really cool thing about equations is that you can change them.  That is essentially one of the basic premises of psychotherapy.  You learn in therapy your old patterns of doing things, as good and reliable as they used to be, don’t need to be the only songs in your repertoire.  But getting into therapy is just one way of accessing change.  You could also begin analyzing your own patterns:

  • Where do you tend to get stymied?
  • What holds you back every time?
  • What qualities in other people make you lose confidence in yourself?
  • What ideas about yourself always leave you feeling less than good?

Being aware of these sticking points is the first step in broadening your awareness of what is keeping you stuck and unhappy.  Awareness is a key factor in enabling change and in fighting Procrastination.  Try not to get overwhelmed by what you unearth when you try to figure out what your own equations are.  We all have multiple equations running at the same time.  We need them to function at the most basic level.  Use what you discover to ease your mind and to understand that change is within your reach, your capacity, and your design.

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When Your Mind Goes in Circles

I am writing this post because of a few recent minor events which happened to me and to my blogging efforts. One thing that happened was one of my older posts was re-sent to subscribers to this blog. So readers received the same thing twice. The next thing that happened was my most recent post vanished from my list of published blog posts. So, I had two weird events happen back-to-back. I also had no idea what to do about either situation.

Then I noticed a few of my old familiar patterns coming back in full force:

  • I turned inward to obsess over what to do even though I really had no idea what to do
  • I felt badly for inconveniencing other people (my readers) and felt the need to apologize without knowing the “best way” to do so
  • I avoided apologizing
  • I felt afraid of making a “next move” for fear of re-sending to readers the post that had vanished if I tried to put it back up on my website
  • I did not turn to any people who might know the answer to my problems
  • I lost valuable time (including treasured vacation time) thinking in circles about these issues

I realized somewhere midway through my obsessional thinking that I was getting myself nowhere and making myself a little bit nuts. But I also could not drop the idea that this experience could be made into a meaningful blog post. The inability to act, the self-criticism, and the crazy-making all felt too much like mini-dysfunctional pieces of Procrastination.

I’ve come to a few conclusions about this mixed-up experience which I wanted to share with you:

  • it’s a good idea to bring thorny issues to resolution
  • there will be questionable and curious events that will happen when you embark on new complex experiences, like blogging
  • you can choose to move past circular thinking just by choosing to do so
  • you can let things go
  • you can let people know about your mistakes and how you feel about them
  • you can move forward either on your own or with the help of others

And here’s an extra bonus lesson I learned:

  • Don’t try to make up for past mistakes on vacation time. It’s effectively a double waste of your time as we human beings are not supposed to work while on vacation.

This post is my way of saying goodbye to my conundrum of not knowing what to do to resolve the two issues with my posts. I have some reasonable assumptions now about what may have happened.  I’ve also begun to take some steps to make sure random transmissions of my blog posts no longer happen.  (I am very sorry that some of you received the duplicate post.)  I also know I want to give the things just ahead of me my full attention. So, I’m going to move on, and feel better.

Thanks for reading along here. If you happen to notice your own mind going in circles, either now or at some later date, I hope you’ll be able to extract yourself too. Decide to clear your mind and allow yourself to move forward again.

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Reality Is Exciting Enough

So often we let our minds wander.  We enjoy prancing through the fields of fantasy.  Unfortunately for some Procrastinators, these meanderings through the fields are akin to what we call our “biggest nightmare.”

We can think the worst very easily and creatively.  We can turn any situation into a crisis.  We can fill all of our free time with thoughts of how others will reject us.  How we have done wrong.  How we will be called out and found out.  How our own perspective just doesn’t cut it.

The problem with this type of thinking process is that it is:

  • all-consuming (and therefore a super time waster)
  • not based in logic or rationality
  • extremely anxiety-provoking
  • blocking of positive thoughts and perspectives and therefore self-reinforcing
  • emotionally paralyzing

The problem becomes magnified when we divert our attention from the real things that are happening in our lives to watch out for what we fear the most.  So each interaction is played out ahead of time.  Each negative outcome is predicted.  Interactions become strained.  Our minds fail due to the overwhelming weight of the thoughts that swirl in our heads.

The answer to this seemingly perpetual problem?  [Tweet “Remember that reality is exciting enough.”]

Even without our worst fears and imagined awkwardnesses drama will happen.  We will make mistakes.  We will feel hurt.  We will feel embarrassed.  We will feel at loose ends.  None of us (that’s right none of us) can control these things completely.  We may try mightily and really imaginatively, but we cannot control these things.

We cannot control:

  • how other people behave
  • how other people feel
  • how other people feel about us
  • what other people decide is best for themselves
  • whether our relationships may end

What we can do is handle what comes our way.  Conversations.  Negotiations.  Arguments.  Introductions.  You can do all of these things.  If you feel you cannot, you can find a coach, therapist, or teacher to help you learn these skills.  Even if you are not the strongest conversationalist, it does not matter.  What does matter is you are just as important as the person you are worried about.  When you give yourself room to experience and to believe that, your thinking will change dramatically because you will be more engaged with reality and you will quickly realize reality is exciting enough.

What worried thoughts can you get rid of?  What interaction might you have with someone in real time instead of worrying?

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Undoing Control

snow3x (1)We don’t really ever have as much control as we’d like or as much as we think we need.  We spend a lot of time and energy trying to forget that.  We try to permify the present by compiling mementos, snapping pictures, filing things, writing in journals, and perfecting our record-keeping.  The stress of not having all this under control and not being in control is consuming.  It encourages a type of obsessive-compulsive behavior by which we establish rituals to ensure we can avoid unwanted results.  Problem is there are no results.  Like the patient who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, we find ourselves trapped in a more and more rigid and fruitless routine.

We want options.  The more the better.  And because of this, any action that’s definitive becomes strangled by the fear of having no options in the future.  In reality, the world is abundant with options — so much so that it is overwhelming.  But also so much so that there is little value in worrying and becoming rigid in our ways.

Procrastinators tend towards rigidity of thought and behavior.  Here’s a sample of my own rigid process: “I could never do it that way. I have to do it this way. Even though it’s ready and my gut says it’s okay, I’m going to make sure by asking Regina.”  This results in:

  • delay
  • heightened stress
  • fears of disappointing myself and others
  • developing even more rigid ways

In my view, the best way out of this control trap is to understand that all things will pass.  Remember that many things that are strong are not rigid.  When we have arthritis, the bone is rigid and this slows and obstructs our movement.

Rather than control, opt for simplicity.

  • Aim for fewer choices, not more.
  • Aim for satisfactory, not perfect.
  • Aim for a sense of calm, not of superiority or competitiveness (except when you are playing Words With Friends against Regina).

I hope you can take this message with you through this holiday season.  There are many sources of stress during this time, but there are many, many more reasons to appreciate this moment, like the complexity of snowflakes, warm cider, juicy breaks from work, and thoughts of loved ones.

Is there one routine you can drop this holiday season?  What benefits may come your way as a result?

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Escape from Idea Purgatory

[Tweet “One idea brought to fruition is worth 1000 in idea purgatory.”]

I am so pleased right now.  A moment ago, I tried a new plug-in called “Click to Tweet” for my blog.  And as you can see from the Tweet invitation above, it worked.  When I installed the plug-in, I was taking a chance it would work and would add value to my blogposts.  I had known about the plug-in for about two months, but since I had never sent a tweet in my life and since tweeting seemed like a language model for aliens to me, I knew I could sit on this idea for a while.  I say this all to demonstrate in a live-action blogging kind of way, that one idea you put on the ground, or in action, is worth 1000 of the kind that are swimming around, lost in your head.  And so, now you understand how my first tweet was born.

But I mention this little dramatic scene also to emphasize the importance of trying out what you don’t know for sure.  This may mean your ideas for a theme for your final essay, ideas for launching a blog or a business, ideas for changing your daily routine or your Procrastination habits.  Your ideas about anything.

I looked up the word purgatory in Urban Dictionary and learned a few interesting things.  First, purgatory is understood as “[a] place between Heaven and Hell, where the soul is not bad enough to be sent to an eternity of damnation in Hell, but not good enough to go to Heaven.”  Other understandings of the term include: (1) being “stuck in limbo,” but wanting to escape, (2) “a place of eternal waiting,” and (3) a confusing mix of “correct or wrong or both.”  I came up with the concept of idea purgatory because I wanted to capture the back-and-forth, mental pacing we can do when we have different ideas in our head.  Nobody knows about these ideas.  We ourselves barely know about them because they are just inklings and twinklings of what we are envisioning.  I also wanted to capture the sense of torment we can experience when our ideas are lying in waiting too long.  Oftentimes ideas do not get better just because we are waiting for them to improve.  In fact, the longer we wait, the harder it becomes to tell if the ideas are good or bad.  Ideas very often get better when we stop waiting, break through our frustration, and take them to another level.

Ideas get really exciting when we act on them and see where they take us.  Or they fall flat and make us feel…eh.  Either way, we benefit from the knowledge the actual experience gives us.  Just to recap what the benefits of getting out of idea purgatory are:

  • your mind becomes clear of the need to perfect the idea
  • your mind becomes clear of the need to act on the idea
  • your mind becomes open to new ideas generated by the idea you put into action
  • your adventurous and creative spirit is reinforced and encouraged

So, try to take one of your ideas out of idea purgatory today.  And if you are up for it, please tweet the tweet in the tweet box above so I can begin to learn how tweeting actually works. That is absolutely the weirdest sentence I have ever composed in my life.  Knew this was for aliens.  I look forward to connecting with you via the little bird soon.

How did your first tweet get off the ground?  Please feel free to share your story of trying a new idea out by leaving a reply here. 

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What Constrains Us

This post was written (and published earlier this week) as a guest post for Positive Workspace, a wonderful site replete with useful and thoughtful information and resources on developing a positive relationship to work.  I hope you like it.

It’s funny how sometimes what gets in our way is not the work we have to do, but our attitudes about ourselves and the various blockages that occur from those attitudes. You guessed it — these are not “I am great and powerful” types of attitudes.  These are nagging, negative, worry-inducing ideas and fears about ourselves.  Here’s a healthy sampling:

Our fear of not being unique.

Our anxiety about letting go.

Our concerns about what other people will think of us.

Our notion that we are not enough.

Our cluttered minds and spaces.

Our refusal to move on.

Our reluctance to change.

With the aid of services like the ones offered by Diane Elkins of Positive Workspace, we can change the negative aspects of our approach to the positive.

We can realize we are inherently unique, in our perspective, our voice, our ways in the world.  There is no reason to fear being less than who we are.

We can actively engage in our work by letting go of our need to perfect it before it is even started.  By letting go we allow our creativity to grow unencumbered.

We can understand we can’t control what other people think of us by holding back on our own work.  In fact, we can realize people will think what they will think no matter what we try to do to shape their ideas about us.  And we can feel less burdened as a result.

We can trust that we are always enough, in terms of “good enough,” as we give our best efforts and believe in what we are putting forth through our work.

We can make immediate movements in freeing our emotional minds for creativity and productivity as we straighten up our workspaces.  When our workspaces are functioning well, we effectively clear the way for better focus and clarity in our work.

We can learn our movement requires just the determination and decision to make one small step in the forward direction.  We can teach ourselves through taking small steps consistently and with ease that we never have to be blocked from moving forward again.

We can embrace the sometimes difficult notion that change is everywhere at every moment.  When we pause to step away from our anxiety about creating work, we can see anxiety for what it is — a signal that we are facing change.  We can develop a new habit of reading our anxiety as a positive sign of a new beginnings rather than a negative sign of alarm and danger.

What constrains us should never be taken lightly.  We can learn from our delays, our worries, our cluttered messes.  That said, we should never bow down or surrender to what constrains us because what constrains us is almost never the work itself.  You will be able to find the very best parts of yourself through your work once you decide to work without any constraints.  I wish you all those very bests.

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