My inner circle isn’t huge – a dozen people give or take. They all seem smarter and more put together than I am. They found careers, got married, bought houses, etc. Me? I returned to school in my 30’s, still rent an apartment, and seem to have a restless soul.
There are periods of my life defined by pain, fear, disappointment, confusion, isolation, and feeling lost at sea. When I look at my friends, I sometimes mistake their lives as being devoid of those particular demons. It makes me feel like there’s a chasm between us. Their lives seem perfect. Mine, on a good day, is a work in progress.
Though hard to see, the truth is far from my surface-level perceptions. All of us go through dark and difficult periods. When I think carefully about my inner circle, I am reminded that in the past few months:
One lost his mother in a freak accident. A few years prior he lost his Dad.
Another friend’s mother was just moved into hospice.
Two suffered miscarriages.
One built a business only to watch it crumble. Now he’s struggling to support his family.
Another told me that he’s in the grips of addiction and may lose his marriage and family.
Personally, I just lost a mentor. Years before I became a speaker he asked me to give a speech. Years before I started meditating he talked to me about spirituality. He constantly saw a better version of me and helped me grow into it. When I found out he was on his deathbed, I sent a letter, but I’ll never know if he read it.
All of this reminds me of one of the most isolating and deceptive aspects of being a human: we notice how nice other people’s lives are while failing to notice their pain. Through omission, misperception, and failed communication, the pain of existence gets hidden away. It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us, like we’re somehow doomed to struggle while everyone else flourishes. On bad days, it prevents us from showing up when we’re most needed.
All of this points to a simple truth about the human experience: even the best lives will be dealt seemingly inordinate amounts of pain and injustice.
I sometimes find myself asking, “What the fuck do I do with this information? How do I deal with the fact that to be alive guarantees more pain than we think we can handle? How do we make any of this shit worth it?”
While I don’t have a complete answer, I do know where to begin:
Hold the people you love just a bit tighter
Be kind and gentle to yourself
Call just to say hi (it’s been many years since M* took his life and I still wish I called him more)
Relish the good times when you can
Notice the striving humanity in other’s eyes
Reach out when the world breaks you
Let others lean on you when the world breaks them
Open your heart just a bit more
Sleep in every now and then
When you meet your edge, soften
Through it all try to remember a simple lesson from my late mentor: we belong to one another. Keeping that in soft focus makes this all a bit better.
I’ve struggled to find my path in life. Prior to starting this blog, I moved from Washington, DC, to Colorado. I also stopped touring as a speaker, despite unexpected success and a 13 year career in the field. While writing this blog, I opened and quickly closed a leadership coaching practice, opened and continue to run a consultancy for speakers, raised capital for a business I decided not to pursue, took on a bunch of side projects, and finally, returned to school.
It’s been a long, strange, and difficult ride, and for the first time ever I feel like I’m on a true path as I work to become a therapist and meditation teacher. It’s reasonable for readers to ask, “Well, how does Jason know that? He’s had a decent number of false starts.” On one hand, I know that I’m on the right path – I haven’t felt this way before. But a far better answer is that as a writer and sometimes speaker, I work in public. I’ll prove it to you as you watch from afar.
This article is the first in a two part series. In it, we’ll discuss a phenomena that a lot of people fall victim to, including myself: being successful, but off your path. We’ll also talk about how to identify some of the subtle signs of missing the mark. In the next article, we’ll discuss practical steps that you can take to help find your path and start moving down it.
Two friends who got it right
Though many of my friends are successful, it’s C* and W* whose work I admire the most.1 Despite not knowing one another well, their paths are shockingly similar. Both became elementary school teachers after finishing undergrad in 2008.
After a few years in the classroom, C* was promoted to Vice Principal of his school. The following year he accepted a Principal position at a struggling school in his community. C* was tasked with turning the school around while concurrently completing his doctorate. He improved the school so dramatically that other districts routinely contact him for advice.
W*, after a few years in the classroom, co-founded one of the nation’s leading public charter schools. He was recently promoted to CEO where he is tasked with overseeing the school’s effectiveness and expansion.
Three signs you may be missing the mark
For years, C* and W* were complete enigmas to me. Like many people, I was obsessed with efficiency, success, status, leadership, influence, etc. C* and W* barely paid attention to that stuff, yet they were happier, more successful, more effective, and much less burnt out than I was. This of course, is the difference between being on your path and missing the mark.
Looking back, I realize that I missed a few critical warning signs that should have let me know I was on the wrong path. Unfortunately, catching these signs is trickier than it seems. In many success-oriented communities, they’re par for the course. If you’re in one of those communities, you kinda have to become a fish out of water, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on. A few of the most glaring signs that your heart is no longer in it:
1) You’re always on the precipice of being burnt out. Even when I had plenty of time to myself, I felt exhausted. This was in part because of the subtle but omnipresent sense of dread resting just below the surface. The truth is, I didn’t want to go through the falderal of doing the work I was doing. This is in sharp contrast to C* and W* who, despite working harder than I ever did, rarely burnt themselves out. To them, work was enlivening.
2) You’re spending a lot of time with self-help, personal/professional development, self-care or motivation. C* and W* didn’t waste time with self-help, personal/professional development, or motivation because they didn’t need to. Since I was out of integrity, I needed a ton of resources just to keep myself going. In many cases, an obsession with motivation, efficiency, self-help, personal development, acknowledgement, self-care, etc. is an artifact of being on the wrong path. Of course, there’s a time and place for all of these things, particularly when you’re going against the grain to better the quality of your life. But if personal development and its satellites are dominating large parts of your time and attention for extended periods, it’s a pretty clear sign that something is wrong.
A related indicator is being deeply driven by money, status, fame, and other forms of accolades. If you’re routinely seeking or in need of external validation, then there’s a very good chance that something has gone awry. One of my close friends is a book marketing consultant. When clients tell him that they want their book to become a best seller featured on Oprah, he responds by saying, “Ok, we can try to make that happen, but therapy is going to be a lot cheaper.”
3) In theory, you should be happy, but you’re not. While it seems like my success should have made me happy (and I certainly expected it to), it didn’t. Instead it inspired something a bit closer to self-loathing. Yes, I could find happiness elsewhere (and I often did), but doing so required work. C* and W* were entirely different. Though their success wasn’t nearly as flashy as mine and though they worked harder than I did, they were much, much happier.
Note: feeling like you should be happy, but not being happy, or enduring prolonged periods of apathy, ennui, or unhappiness can be symptoms of depression and other forms of inner unrest. As always, if you feel like you’ve been struggling with your mental health, I urge you to turn to a qualified mental health provider.
What do C* and W* understand that the rest of us don’t?
People immersed in entrepreneurship, leadership, thought leadership, sales, social media, and personal development, tend to believe that success is something that must be aimed for in order to achieve. This makes sense. The process of making sales calls, building funnels, cranking out content, split testing, engaging in humiliating levels of self-promotion, failure, rejection, chasing money and status, writing copy, covertly trying to impress your peers, etc. is so inherently meaningless that we need external motivation just to get out of bed. And again, I get it. I spent most of my professional life with these burdens.
To further complicate the matter, whenever we’re motivated by external validation, enough is never enough. At the beginning you’ll be excited just to have a client. Then you’ll be excited when a client pays for your flights. Then you’ll want first class flights. Then you’ll feel inferior for not flying private. I know that sounds crazy, but trust me.
C* and W* understand something that is lost on many people. They have figured out that if you take the time to do good work that you care about, especially in service of others, all that’s left is to consistently show up and do your best. For them, their stunning success and influence was never a target they cared much about; instead it’s an artifact of doing work that they find intrinsically meaningful. As far as I can tell, true success always works like that.
I recently began a two-year course with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach to become a meditation teacher. During a retreat last month, Jack encouraged participants to practice “the stealth technique” while we were together.
The stealth technique is simple: you look at someone – either a stranger or person you know – and silently wish something kind for them. Traditional examples include, “May you be well,” “May you be happy” or “May you be free from suffering.”
I tried it during the retreat and was surprised by how much joy it brought me. It was nice to send positive vibes to complete strangers. It got me out of my head and reminded me of the subtle connections that bind us to one another.
When I got home, I started modifying the exercise. Instead just making broad stroke wishes for people, I started getting playful and specific:
To a puppy, “May your life be filled with treats, infinite cuddles, and long walks”
To an old couple, “May the two of you have wild sex tonight”
To a guy at the gym, “May you be proud of your physique “
To a beggar, “May you have somewhere warm to sleep, a fresh pair of socks, and a delicious meal”
To a business partner, “May you close a big fucking deal and crush your competition”
To a woman on the phone, “May you indulge in some guilt-free fro-yo after work”
To a long-haired teen, “May you host a legendary party this weekend and kiss your crush”
To a random woman, “May you find $5 in your jeans tomorrow”
To a middle school student, “May you be blessed with countless snow days this winter”
To a guy about my age, “May you have the best dump of your life this week (and tell a few of your friends about it)”
Stuff like that.
This silly little practice continues to bring me more joy and happiness than any other five second exercise I’ve done.
So wait, what’s the technique here?
Simple: as you move through your day, train your attention on a random person. Silently wish something nice for them. It can be generic like happiness, or specific like winning the next carnival game you play. You can set an alarm on your phone or watch to remind you to use the stealth technique once or twice a day.
Of course, you don’t have to reserve this for strangers. You can aim your well wishes at people you know, public figures, animals, or whatever. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can even use it for all life.
But also, remember to make some wishes for yourself too. You deserve it. Wish that you have mind blowing sex, that you find five dollars, and that your life is filled with treats, long walks, and infinite cuddles.
But what does this actually do?
The mystic in me is convinced that the stealth technique makes a meaningful – if also subtle – difference in other people’s lives. The reductionist in me is confident that my unspoken thoughts have no effect on the world, no matter how eccentric they are.
I’m not really sure if sending energy (or prayers, if you will) to other people makes a meaningful difference in their lives. What I do know is that it makes a difference in mine. It snaps me out of the trance of self-obsession, reminds me that we are all in this together, offers a bit of usable hope, and candidly, amuses the hell out of me. It makes me a bit kinder to myself and the people I collide with. It slows me down and reminds me that though it feels like we are separate and autonomous, we are all deeply, deeply connected.
Of course, there’s no reason to take my word for any of this. Instead, give it a try. If you’re in public now, glance at a stranger and make a wish for him or her. If you’re on your own, go for a walk and make a wish for the first three people you see. Or just remind yourself of someone who could use a win, and make a wish for her. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Note 1: Given some of my previous work this article is deeply hypocritical. I get that. But then, if we don’t periodically reevaluate our ideas and values we will forever be held captive by our past.
A little more personally: this article is hard for me to publish. It also feels right.
Note 2: For our purposes, the term “life coach” will act as an umbrella term that broadly encompasses people offering mental health services without academic training, qualified supervision, or licensure. This also includes spiritual guides and meditation teachers who do not come from an established lineage with supervision (including self-proclaimed shamans and plant medicine practitioners).
Ok, let’s begin…
Autumn 2016: To my surprise, my coaching practice is filling up. Not only that, but I’m making way more money than I expected.
And yet, something feels off. My clients are turning to me for advice about sexual abuse, addiction, childhood trauma, their relationships with their children, infidelity, divorce, breakups, and decisions that will impact their lives for years to come.
Though it’s easy to get caught up in the success and the ego of it all, the reality is clear: I’m not qualified to do this type of work. If a friend wanted to discuss something over beers that would be one thing, but these people are paying me for advice on their inner wellness and life strategy. An innocent mistake or two and I can seriously fuck someone up. I need to quit.
Why it’s surprisingly hard to work with good mental health professionals
Let’s start with something simple: it’s wrong to treat people’s health problems without extensive training, supervision, and licensure. The risk of unintentionally doing harm is just too high. In the realm of physical health, most providers and patients seem to understand the risk of inexperience. If you have an infectious disease, you would turn to an MD, not someone that learned medicine from a YouTube channel or by reading a few articles.
But with mental health, things start to get blurry. Often instead of turning to licensed providers, we either deny the reality of our problems or turn to life coaches and self-help. These coaches claim to be able to help with eating disorders, self-acceptance, self-esteem, transitions, anxiety, depression, grieving, addiction, a wide variety of inner turmoil, and a million other mental ailments. Of course, coaches can’t provide these services any better than the YouTube dude can cure infectious disease. But still, we turn to life coaches and similar providers for mental health issues all the time. This happens for reasons that are as numerous as they are complicated:
From a legal perspective, training, supervision, and licensure isn’t really required to provide mental health services.
Many coaches don’t fully understand that they are providing mental health services. They tell themselves that therapy focuses on the past and coaching focuses on the future so consequently coaching doesn’t have much to do with mental health. Of course, neither claim is true. This is further complicated by the reality that many people who turn to life coaches (and the coaches themselves) don’t understand that their dissatisfaction in life likely stems from untreated mental illness.
Mental health is a relatively new and evolving field filled with misconceptions coming from both providers and clients.
Insurance companies make getting effective treatment complicated and push accelerated and ineffective regiments.
Mental health issues are plagued by stigma, which makes us more likely to feel shame and deny their existence.
Some mental health professionals are abusive and take advantage of their clients (this happened to me).
Some mental health professionals are idiots.
Many mental health professionals have terrible websites and marketing.
Many people have sought mental health services from licensed providers, only to never have their calls or emails returned.
In contrast, many life coaches have beautiful marketing and smooth on-boarding procedures, which makes working with them much easier than working with many licensed providers.
Many coaches frame their services as “an investment in yourself” and lie about the results they can produce which makes it more seductive to work with them. A complicated note here: many coaches aren’t fully aware of their own deceit. More on that in a moment.
The end result? Life coaches and self-help gurus can edge out mental health professionals. They’re easier to work with, more seductive, less stigmatized, and have better marketing.
In almost all cases life coaches are a risky waste of time and money
Keep in mind that I write from the perspective of an industry insider. Not only did I own a thriving coaching practice, as a speaker I attended – and often spoke at – many of the elite industry conferences. I consulted for some of big names and managed to almost get sued for publicly discussing myshifting views of the community.
Coaches tend to believe that they’re qualified to help others since they’ve done a bit of reading, allegedly healed their own ailments, or got their lives on track. Many simply believe that they have a gift for understanding people. While I think their intent is benign, it’s also misguided.
Again, this is not a mistake that we would ever make in the realm of physical health. You would never believe that getting your kidney stones pulverized by a doctor and reading the accompanying literature would qualify you to treat other people’s kidney stones, even if you’re a fast learner. And yet, coaches routinely couple this logic with their desire to help people. Part of the reason this happens is that many of the things that seem to be productive for people aren’t. A few examples:
Many coaches (and, unfortunately, therapists) will urge their clients to have difficult conversations with triggering people in their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hard conversations, but not categorically. In some instances they can be counterproductive, retraumatizing, or both. I once met a woman who, at the direction of her coach, reconnected with a man who raped her several years prior. She was instructed to let him know that she forgave him for raping her. The coach figured this would help complete her past. It didn’t. Instead it triggered her, riddled her with regret and shame, and derailed her self-esteem.
Along similar lines, coaches will often encourage their clients to share deeply vulnerable parts of themselves before they’re ready. Several years ago I was at a conference in Napa when a coach made an audience member stand up and admit some of his deepest insecurities to the audience. When the audience member was reluctant, the coach bullied him until he tearily opened up. The coach believed that admitting insecurities to strangers was the path to liberation from them. This is not only wrong, it’s reckless.
Due to a lack of grounding in scientific research and evidence-based practices, coaches will often give guidance that seems like it should work, but doesn’t. I recently met a man who was routinely sexually abused as a child. Understandably, his self-esteem was in the gutter well into his 30’s. He turned to a coach to help develop his sense of worth. The coach assigned the man a series of complicated affirmations that took 10-15 minutes to recite each day. This did little beyond waste his time, temporarily deflate his hope for a better life, and criminally oversimplify the complexity and pain of trauma.
Unlike therapists, coaches will often tell their clients what to do in any given situation. While many clients like this, it tends to be counterproductive. It gives the coach way too much power and creates a level of co-dependency that prevents the client from becoming confident, self-aware, and autonomous.
Coaches will often push their clients to “take massive action” in their lives. The idea is that if you make all the changes you want to make right now you’ll suddenly step into a new – better – era. While this has the potential to be seductive, it’s unnecessarily violent and unsustainable. A far better approach is to make gradual changes and allow them to compound over time. Not only is this smoother, but the net impact tends to be far greater.
Some of the most effective mental health interventions are extremely counterintuitive. For example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is weird as shit. It involves bilateral stimulation while recalling difficult memories and experiences. It’s also an effective form of trauma treatment. No coach would ever stumble upon this technique on their own. The more intuitive techniques, like talking about trauma or reframing it, tend to be less effective.
Often, many of these coaches aren’t just lying to their clients: they’re lying to themselves too. Instead of addressing their own issues, they claim to be able to help others with the exact problems that define the coach’s own life. Doing so allows them to enter a fantasy land where they can conceive of themselves as healed instead of doing the hard work of facing their demons.
Earlier this week I had dinner with a young attractive couple. There was a weird vibe between them. Their communication was strained and they didn’t seem to like each other all that much. Later on, the friend who organized the dinner told me that the couple intended to start a relationship coaching business. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. This type of thing – though insane – is common.
What does this have to do with Jason going to graduate school again?
All of this is top of mind for a simple reason: I am dying to become a mental health professional, but also, I really dislike higher education and am extremely reluctant to go back to school. In fact, I so dislike school that I nearly dropped out two weeks before finishing my undergraduate degree. The only reason I didn’t is because a mentor heard about my plans, called me, and yelled at me until I promised to finish.
This leaves me with three options:
1) Ignore my dream of becoming a mental health provider or work adjacent to it (like running the business operations of a counseling practice)
2) Work as a life coach and deal with the ethical issues
3) Bite the bullet and go back to school
Though written out like this it seems easy, the decision was deceptively difficult. When I floated the idea of going back to school I got countless texts and emails from people I trust telling me that it would be a huge mistake especially given my previous success as a coach.1 This, coupled with my own disdain for higher education made it difficult for me to determine my next step.
Eventually the right decision became clear and three weeks ago, I entered a Masters of Social Work program at Fordham University to pursue licensure as a psychotherapist. In addition to the academic work, I’ll receive 1,100+ hours of supervised fieldwork. To help round out my understanding of the mind and spirit, I’ve also begun a meditation teacher training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Yeah. 2019 is going to be a busy year.
When I finish my education in mid-2020, I’ll open an untraditional private practice. In fact, I’ve already begun working on it. I’ll aim to use psychology and evidence based practices to help people flourish personally and professionally. The space itself will be something akin to a spa for people’s inner wellness. To say I’m excited is an understatement.
PS: A call to arms for coaches and therapists alike
I totally understand that life-coaching isn’t going away. Heck, it was one of the paths I considered. I realize that some people’s lives have been dramatically improved by the work of good coaches. I also understand that not everyone who works in the industry will (or can) go back to school. With that in mind, here are my best suggestions for life coaches who want to stay in the industry and be as fully in integrity – and responsible – as possible.
1) Hire a licensed mental health professional to supervise your work and inform your decisions. Check in with her at least once a week to ensure that you’re not doing harm to your clients. Again, just because you have ostensibly solved the issue for yourself and have a thriving business does not qualify you to do mental health work. It also fails to protect your clients from accidental harm. Supervision will help mitigate the risk and improve your success rate.
2) Better yet, work to ensure that the field of coaching becomes one with licensure, accountability, grounding in evidence based practices, and meaningful accreditation. Doing this would solve many of the industry’s problems. It may also lead to coaching overtaking psychotherapy as the preferred line of intervention for some mental health challenges.
3) Eliminate the lies, half truths, and deceptive statements from your marketing and sales. Keep in mind that this likely begins by having a difficult conversation with yourself (that’s where I had to start).
4) Be upfront with your clients and yourself about the limits of your ability. If these are not immediately obvious to you, then you are probably unqualified to do this type of work. When I worked as a coach, I wrote, “RYL” in sharpie on my wrist everyday. “RYL” was short for “Respect Your Limits”
5) Consider pursuing formal education and licensure (unfortunately those coaching certifications don’t count). I know, going back to school is a bitch, but if you’re not willing to get the proper credentials to do this type of work, is it really reasonable for you to get involved with people’s inner wellness? Is it ethical?
Therapists have a few things to learn from coaches too…
Going back to school while I was at the top of my industry was a difficult decision. To help ensure I wasn’t making a mistake, I partnered with a few therapists in 2018 to help them with their businesses. As I begin to work on my practice, there are a few questions I continuously come back to again and again that I think many therapists should consider.
1) How is your marketing? What can you do to modernize your website and signal that mental health is a problem with effective solutions and a misplaced stigma?
2) How easy is it for prospective clients to book their first appointment with you? When I sought therapy, scheduling my first appointment was shockingly hard. For the most part, the therapists I called never returned my calls. My friends struggled with that too. It’s important to make it easy for people to schedule their first appointment or get referrals to available providers.
3) Am I consistently helping my clients achieve their goals? Remember to periodically ask clients, “Hey, how’s this going for you? Are we making meaningful progress together?” Remember that for most consumers, psychology exists in a black box. This makes it extremely difficult for patients to evaluate the quality of their providers. Push to provide the best service possible. Don’t be the reason that people perceive psychotherapy as a waste of time. Even if you think you’re good at what you do you should always be striving to improve.
4) Be creative. How can you integrate the good parts of life coaching into your practice to create the best overall consumer experience? Add creativity, boldness, and experimentation to your work. While nothing will replace the standard 50-minute session on the couch, to only offer that is to deprive your clients.
PPS: What about this blog?
Don’t worry the blog isn’t going anywhere while I’m in school. If anything, it will get better because I’ll be working in the trenches and keeping up to date with the latest methodology and research.
One heads up though: the program I’ve enrolled in is one of the most intense and comprehensive in the country. Though I will 100% continue to write here, it may take a minute for me to get used to the new pace of life and figure out what a realistic publishing schedule looks like.
Excerpted from an email to a friend, Oct 2018: Most of this year was exceptionally difficult. I was blindsided by a breakup, a project I spent years on failed, someone threatened to sue me over a deceptively complicated copyright issue (I was in the wrong and fixed it), and I kept running around in circles trying to navigate a career change.
A mentor told me that I was struggling because I was out of integrity; instead of being true to myself, I was acting like someone else. Though I knew he was right, I didn’t really want to accept it (I also wanted to punch him). So instead of taking time to come back to myself, I travelled, dated, took on more clients, and started raising capital for a new business that I would later stop pursuing
Eventually I decided to just be on my own. I scaled down at work, stopped running around the city, stopped dating, stopped traveling, and just sat with it all.
The first month was hard, but then I started feeling good. Really good. I felt like myself again. I hadn’t been this calm or happy since sometime in 2017. I’m going back to school in January to become a psychotherapist and meditation teacher. It’s weird to leave a successful career at the top of my game, but fuck it, it feels exactly right. For now, a lot of my time is spent managing the few clients I’ve kept and trying to learn ukulele.
When I think of 2018, I think of bitter, bitter medicine. My mistakes and failures seemed to collide with one another until they became so significant that I could no longer ignore them. I needed to stop everything and do the hard work of getting back to myself. Paul McCartney’s “I don’t know” got me through many tough days.
Though most of the year sucked, I suspect that I’ll look back at 2018 as a year that ended one chapter and began another.
As always, I’ll end our year with a personal review of what I learned, what went poorly, and what went well in 2018. You can find the reviews from 2016 here and from 2017 here.
Lean on your friends like your life depends on it. For most of my life I was afraid to be needy. I feared that if I asked for help, comfort, or care, people would dismiss me as being more effort than I’m worth.
Today, I behave very differently. I try to reach out for help well before I break, and when I do break, I let other people nurse me back to health. I’ve started discussing my fears and insecurities with people I trust, along with the victories. Allowing myself to lean on loved ones is one of the few things that made this year manageable.
Next time you’re going through something intense, please reach out to the people you trust and love. Open up to them. The more you let good people in, the better your life will go. I know it can be terrifying at first. My hand shook the first time I called a friend to talk, but it was so worth it.
When nothing else works, slow way down. It was April when my mentor told me I needed to get back in touch with myself, but I didn’t actually attempt to do that until July.
From July through late October my life became more boring than it’s ever been. I didn’t step on a jet, go on a date, have a drink, take on a client, begin a new project, or do anything beyond what was necessary for months. I instead upped the amount of time I spent reading and meditating and tried to trust that I would find clarity within the clam.
At first it was extremely difficult. I was restless, distracted, anxious, and filled with doubt. After a while though, a switch seemed to flip, and I woke up happy and clear. I knew that I wanted to go back to grad school to become a psychotherapist. I realized that it was time to let go of the part of my life defined by travel, speaking, consulting, parties, etc. and start something new.
But the calm didn’t just provide clarity. It was also deeply restorative. My physical and mental health is better than it’s ever been. If you’ve been dealing with some form of persistent problem, and you haven’t meaningfully shifted into a lower gear, I urge you to do so. More here.
As far as business goes, if you do good work and keep good relationships, you won’t need to waste your time with marketing BS. At the end of 2017 I changed how I operate my consultancy. Instead of actively marketing myself at conferences, networking events, industry publications, or social media, I shifted to a referral-only strategy. In other words, my consultancy currently runs 100% by word of mouth.
Here’s a list of things I don’t have:
A website explaining my offerings or “unique selling position”
A PDF with prices and descriptions of the services I offer
Secret strategies that no one knows about (I explain all of the strategies I use during the sales call and routinely teach them to my competitors)
Sales funnels or any other sort of elaborate scheme to get people to say yes
Here’s what I do have:
An extremely strong reputation in a niche industry
A willingness to respect the limits of my ability and explain them to clients before they sign on
Shifting to a referral-only model was a calculated move. I spent my first couple years marketing myself, doing the best work I could, and charging less than the competition. This helped me build a reputation as a great provider. In 2018, I was able to stop spending time on marketing and instead focus all of my efforts on doing great work.
Where I messed up
I made more stupid mistakes in 2018 than I have in ages. Instead of chronicling them all, I’ve chose two that will hopefully serve as a lesson to other people.
You know that digital course on professional speaking I released? It didn’t do well, and not for lack of effort or care. In a world where many creators boast about making an online course in a day, I spent over two years writing, testing, refining, and polishing my course. And to this day, I’m really proud of it. More importantly, the speakers who enrolled and followed along are getting gigs.
I also spent eight months working on the marketing of the course. I shot multiple trailers, wrote and rewrote the sales copy, and spent weeks working to get the price point just right. Then, with a team of 13 people, brought the course to market, and… we fell short of projections by over 60%.
But it’s not the fact that the course didn’t generate a ton of revenue that makes it a mistake. It’s that my motivation was wrong. I don’t love digital marketing or digital products. Working on one – even one that I ended up very proud of – wasn’t the best way for me to spend my time or energy. At the risk of being overly idealistic, I’m going to do my best to work primarily on projects I fall in love with going forward.
I continuously tried to rush the future when I really should have chilled the F out. I have a tendency of crashing head first into the future and attempting to solve problems as quickly as I can. There are times when this works extremely well. But then, there are times when the “solution” just ends up creating additional problems.
I’ve learned that in some cases, the best solution is to sit with the problem. At the emotional and spiritual level, this allows us to feel whatever we’ve been avoiding, and in doing so, become equipped to deal with it. At the creative and rational level, moving slowly and giving ourselves space allow us to come up with better solutions.
What went well
One thing I’m working on is remembering that even in the most difficult life moments, there will come a time when I would trade everything to return to that moment. More than that, there are billions of people who would happily trade places with me. And if you’re reading this on any sort of a digital device – and if you have the time, energy, and education to do so – there’s a good chance that many would trade places with you too. Remembering this helps me understand just how fortunate I am. Here are the four things that stand out for going well in 2018.
I ended up better off for all the difficulty. Life is much more about getting back up than getting knocked down. Though the first eight months of the year kicked my ass, the last four have been some of the best of my life. More than that, the hard times inspired me to close one chapter and begin anew. I can’t begin to tell you how wildly excited I am to become a therapist and open my own boutique practice upon graduation.
On a related note, I managed to find a stable sense of calm and happiness. I started meditating a decade ago and spent two years in therapy. As I mentioned earlier, I dedicated three months of 2018 to the essentials. Giving myself time to recover let all the spiritual and emotional work set in. While I still wrestle with darkness from time to time, I no longer lose myself within it. Now, my default mode is playful and energetic.
I got a 50 pound personal record on my deadlift! Earlier this month, I pulled 355 pounds for the first time. This felt amazing because my previous pr was 305. I also added 20 pounds to my clean for a solid 185.
Years ago one of the coaches at my gym, said, “Look, when you lift heavy you have to walk up to the bar and know that you can lift it. Eliminate any trace of doubt from your mind and pick the damn bar up.”
While I’m not sure that the mind or body always works like that, I’ve noticed that I can lift more when I pause to minimize doubt and emphasize confidence. Is this just confirmation bias? Possibly, but either way, I’m pretty psyched about these PRs.
I got involved with local politics. When Trump was elected I promised myself (and my readers) that I would get involved with politics. So, I found a local candidate here in Denver, Alex Valdez, who I believed in and volunteered on his campaign (which he won! congrats again, Alex!). I learned a lot. If you too are concerned about the state of your country or community, I urge you to take action.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”
– Walt Whitman
– 1 –
I’ve been listening to Mount Joy’s “Sheep” and Son Little’s “Blue Magic (Waikiki)” on repeat. Both songs have these moments of recklessness and darkness that just capture me. They pierce my sense of self.
Mount Joy sings, almost nervously, “It’s the blood that haunts me / I can’t fall asleep / cause it’s ruthless / and don’t tell me you’re ruthless too.” Son Little sings, “I don’t want to be a bad man / but I’m a bad man all the same.”
And man do I love those lyrics. Something in me wakes up when I hear them. It’s thrilling.
But of course, this is disorienting. I think of myself as a sensitive dude.
– 2 –
We’re walking down the street and M* tells me a story from a year ago. It’s sort of a nothing story, one that’s best dismissed as a curiosity and then forgotten.
And yet, his story made me feel insecure. I responded by lashing out and saying some cruel things. In a striking lapse of self-awareness I turned to him and said, “Dude, you’re being really insecure right now. What’s wrong?”
Eventually M* interrupted me and said, “Whoa. Not cool man.”
He was right. I wasn’t being cool. I was being an asshole.
In a more skillful moment I would have maintained composure, or at the very least, excused myself to calm down a bit. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I bared my fangs and went for flesh…
– 3 –
It reminded me of something simple that I’d rather deny than embrace: there are very real parts of me that suck. They’re dark, crude, raw, unpolished, and every now and then a bit dangerous. They love the idea of crushing the competition and slaughtering the enemy. By normal definitions, they’re ruthless and bad.
They’re also 100% human.
And it’s not just me. It’s all of us.
The question isn’t whether or not these dark edges exist. It’s more a question of what do we do with them?
– 4 –
In a way, society has answered that question for us: we deny the dark edges of our personality.
If you do your best to blend in, humble brag about your accomplishments, and keep your sharp edges hidden away, you’re totally cool.
But if you acknowledge the part of you that yearns for chaos, darkness, wildness, triumph, risk, and instability, people will worry that you’re unwell, maybe even dangerous.
So in reaction to society’s norms, we highlight the parts of ourselves that are smooth, gentle, and harmonious, while trying to deny the existence of the darkness, roughness, and chaos.
– 5 –
Put more directly: you have been trained to forget the fact that you are the apex predator.
– 6 –
But denying parts of yourself is never a good idea. To do so is to reinforce the illusion that who you really are isn’t worthy of love, respect, or connection. At best, self-denial will destroy your love of life and sap your potential. At worst, it will amplify the exact thing you’re trying to suppress and inspire unnecessary violence.
Instead of fearing your own darkness – or pretending that it’s not there – you should embrace it.
– 7 –
To be clear: this is not a green light to do harm. If you’ve done harm in the past, express remorse and ask for forgiveness. If you feel like you may do harm in the future, and you can’t get a grip on yourself, seek help. This goes for harm done to yourself and others.
Instead, it’s an invitation to finally acknowledge your wildness and allow yourself to ride your emotional edge. It’s an invitation to feel the raw, unbridled life pulsing within you. It’s an invitation to realize that at your core, you’re capable of destruction and creation, violence and harmony, cruelty and love.
Doing so will further connect you to life and your power within it.
– 8 –
As your power grows, you’ll need to develop your skill in working with it. You neither want to be tamed nor untamed. Instead you want to be capable of using your edges to serve yourself and the world.
One way to do this is by creating situations where you can safely sink your fangs into life. While the specifics vary for each individual, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Learning to set boundaries made me more uncomfortable than I expected. Much of my identity was unconsciously defined by the desire to be liked, and putting my needs first – and possibly upsetting someone along the way – often didn’t sit right with me. Looking back, I realize that this was a side effect of low self worth. I also knew that if I didn’t learn, the world would eat me alive. In an effort to achieve a healthy balance, I read countless articles on setting good boundaries but for me, most strategies were too aggressive, too woo-woo, or too watered-down.
For many, learning to set boundaries creates a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Setting good boundaries can make it easier to strengthen your self-esteem. Yet, people with low self-esteem often struggle to set good boundaries. In this article, we’re going to tackle the problem by talking about what boundaries are, why we struggle to set them, how to deal with the adjustment period, and 30 techniques to set great ones.
What are boundaries and why do we struggle to set them?
Your experience in life is partially dictated by how you allow yourself to be treated. Boundaries are the rules you set for other people (and sometimes yourself) about their interactions with you.
Boundaries are complicated. They range from the subtle (changing the topic) to the explicit (a restraining order) and morph within the different spheres of your life. You may be unwilling to take a call from your boss on Saturday afternoon, but would welcome one from your brother. To further complicate the matter, boundaries change as our relationships evolve. If someone you just met on Tinder showed up at your office with a big teddy bear, it would be creepy as hell. If your fiancé did the same, it would likely make your afternoon.
But it’s not just the fluidity of boundaries that makes them complicated. Setting a boundary risks upsetting the other person. If you’re struggling with self-worth, the idea of putting your needs ahead of others can be intimidating. Therefore, it’s best to set boundaries in a way that is clear, consistent, and respectful. This can often be done with gentleness and compassion. In some cases you’ll have to be a bit more assertive. Keep in mind that being consistent is critical here. If you’re flakey with your boundaries, it’s not fair to expect other people to be strict with them.
30 ways to set better boundaries in your life
An important note for my fellow recovering people-pleasers: all of the following things are 100% ok. Seriously. They may make you uncomfortable at first because you’re used to letting people ignore your needs, but OMG, I promise you’re allowed to set boundaries. Not only that, but they’ll seriously improve your life.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to use all of these techniques. Instead, cherry-pick the ones that resonate with you. Personally, I tend to start with the more subtle approaches, and only turn the dial up when needed. Here are 30 ways to set better boundaries in your life:
Prioritize the stuff that keeps you happy, healthy, and sane. Seriously. This is more important than helping your buddy move, talking to your Mom about her tuna salad, or returning your clients email within 26 seconds.
Say no to the stuff that doesn’t interest you and explain why you’re saying no.
Or say no and don’t bother offering an explanation. The truth is, you don’t need to explain yourself if you don’t want to. This is one of my favorite moves.
Or say no but respectfully affirm the other person’s desire. I do this all the time, especially during negotiations. A prospective client recently asked for a payment plan that I don’t offer. I said, “I understand the desire to breakup the payments, but unfortunately that’s not an option. I understand if this is a deal breaker for you.”
Say no by explaining that you need a bit of time to focus on your physical or mental health. The cool part here is that if you’re ducking out something to avoid a person or situation you dislike, saying no is a form of prioritizing your health.
If you’re struggling to say no in the moment say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Then spend a day or two figuring out how you want to let the other person down, and say, “no.” If the person is particularly aggressive or unreasonable, just send a text.
Send the call to voicemail.
Wait for a few hours (or days) before returning a call / text / email. This is especially useful for imbalanced relationships where one person wants to be much closer than the other.
When dealing with difficult people, inform them of the decision you’ve made instead of asking for permission or input. In other words, say, “Though I’ll really miss you and the rest of the family during the holidays, I’m going to stay in California this year” instead of, “Would it be ok with you and the family if I stayed in California for the holidays?”
Take a mental health day where you ignore everything you want to ignore (including work) and focus on charming yourself. Personally, I like to binge watch Impractical Jokers, go for a walk without my phone, get takeout for dinner, and then turn my electronics off and read.
There are a lot of people and activities that are great for an hour but unbearable for a day. Spend time with these people and things for only as long as you enjoy them.
For people who are particularly difficult and also unavoidable, only agree to hang out with them in the settings where you can tolerate them. This can be a large group, a small group, one-on-one, in places where it’s hard to interact (like a movie), only when they’re sober, whatever.
If someone is really bothering you, block their email address, phone number, and social media. If that feels too extreme, change the settings on your social media accounts so that you stop receiving updates about them without unfriending them. On the other hand, if they’re really bothering you or making you feel threatened, consider getting a restraining order.
One of my favorite tricks: when someone does something that you really like, point it out or give them a compliment. For some people, reinforcing positive behavior is deceptively effective.
This is an important one: when someone hurts you, regardless of their intent, let them know. Say, “Hey, I doubt this was your intent, but when you did x, y, and z, it hurt.”
Likewise, if something is making you uncomfortable, let the other person know. You can do this by saying, “Hey I know this kinda awkward, and I doubt it’s your intent, but when you do X it really makes me uncomfortable.”
Just change the damn topic.
Or, a bit more subtly: refuse to engage with topics you don’t like. Often when people have opinions I disagree with or don’t want to discuss, I’ll listen to what they say, but refuse to respond. I’ll transition into a different conversation by saying, “That’s interesting. On a different note…”
If that fails, say, “For my own sanity I need to stop talking about this. Tell me about…” and then bring up any other topic or question that is likely to cause less tension. Yes, it may be awkward for a minute or two as you find the groove again, but that’s way better than endlessly suffering in silence. And if the person refuses to change the topic, it’s cool to just get up leave. Seriously.
Respect other people’s boundaries. More than that, thank them for setting the boundary in the first place. You can do this by saying, “Thanks for letting me know,” when they tell you how they prefer to be treated. Respecting and reinforcing other people’s boundaries is likely to make it easier for you to respect and reinforce your own.
If something has been on your mind for a long time consider talking about it. I know that leaning into these conversations can be hard. It’s also tends to be worth it. Disclaimer: when you do choose to have a hard conversation, think about your motives. If you’re doing it just to hurt the other person or to play some sort of power game with them, don’t waste your time. More on hard conversations here.
If you struggle to enforce boundaries for yourself (and lord knows I did… and sometimes still do) ask for help. If there’s a particularly difficult boundary that you need to enforce, ask a friend to be there with you during or right after the conversation. You can also ask friends to help hold you accountable.
An advanced move: discuss boundaries and expectations ahead of time. This tends to make more sense in some situations than others, specifically: forming new business partnerships, dealing with roommates, starting a project with a new client/boss/contractor, beginning a new phase of life, or the initial stages of love, sex, and romance.
Simply refuse to share parts of your life with people who you don’t want to be close to. There are whole chapters of my life story that many of the people in my circle will never find out about. The simple truth is that I just don’t want to share certain parts of myself with them.
Don’t respond to work emails or texts on the weekend unless you really want to.
Only take unscheduled calls when you’re easily available and excited to talk to the other person. While I somewhat enforce this with my friends and family, I super enforce it with my professional relationships.
You know those stupid, “Hey we should totally connect! When are you free for coffee?” or “I’d love to pick your brain – what’s your phone number?” type meeting requests from complete strangers? Unless you’re excited to meet the other person, just ignore them. I mean, seriously, has anything good ever come from one of those? A related approach to these issues is to charge for your time. I useclarity.fm.
Memorize and use the phrase, “I’d rather not answer that.”
While you’re at it, memorize the phrase, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet,” too.
After you’ve set a boundary that was hard for you, give yourself a treat. Though it can be something tangible, like a chocolate cake, it doesn’t have to be. I’ll usually go for a walk around the block without my phone to process the conversation and let the good feelings sink in.
What to do when people can’t take a hint…
You’ll notice that most of these techniques are subtle. As long as you’re consistent, you can easily set boundaries for 95% of the people in your life like this. They’ll be able to read the social cues and adjust accordingly.
But then, there’s always that damn 5% who just can’t get with the program. In these instances, I suggest clearly spelling out the boundary and the repercussions of violating it. If they still steam roll you, just let them go.
When I lived in DC there was a guy who used to make inappropriate comments about my girlfriend. No matter how clearly I tried to communicate, he wouldn’t stop.
Then, one day I woke up to a text from him discussing her appearance. I picked up the phone, called him, and said, “I’m fucking sick of hearing your comments about N*. I don’t give a shit about what your intention is. If I hear one more remark from you her, I’m going to stop talking to you entirely and explain to everyone in our circle why I did that. The funny part is that your reputation is so fucked up, I doubt I’ll even have to show people the text you just sent me for them to believe what happened. Do you understand me?” He tried to explain that he didn’t mean anything by it. I kept interrupting him and saying, “No. I asked you a simple question. Do you understand me?” When he finally said “Yes” I said “Good” and hung up.
The next time I saw him, he offered a sincere apology. And while I don’t see him much anymore he’s been nothing but respectful to me ever since.
Expect an adjustment period for everyone involved
I didn’t start setting meaningful boundaries until a bit later in life. When I finally did, everyone – myself included – had to adjust to the new expectations I had for my relationships. For the most part everything was fine. Yeah, there were a few instances where family members hung up on me because they were uncomfortable with the changing nature of our relationship, but they got over it. Today, those relationships are better because I advocated for myself.
Keep in mind that with any new skill, it’s going to be a bit messy at first. That’s ok. It’s also reasonable that some of the people in your life will make a few mistakes as they recalibrate too. The trick here is to be forgiving, both of yourself and others.
Once you get used to setting boundaries, it gets really easy. Almost effortless. Along the way, you create a life filled with people you enjoy who reliably treat you well.
PS A few notes on letting people in…
The beauty of boundaries is that they keep people at a safe distance. But then, the tyranny of boundaries is that they keep people at a safe distance.
From time to time, you’ll want to make a sincere effort to be vulnerable and let people in. Do this gradually, and only with the select group of people who really deserve it.1 Share a small part of yourself and see how it goes. Were they respectful? Curious? Open? Did they share a small part of themselves too? Do you like feeling closer to them? If so, continue opening up. You don’t need to rush this.
Though it may seem counter intuitive or even hypocritical, I have a small inner circle who I allow to bypass my boundaries. These are people I’ve known for years who have repeatedly demonstrated their love and care. I know that if they do violate a boundary, they’re doing it either because it’s in my best interest, or because they really need my attention. In either instance I’m cool with it.
My parents dragged me to a fancy dinner party in 1999. I was 13-years-old: at the end of the night, the adults ask to see a magic trick. I grab a dinner roll and a napkin from the table, cover the roll with the napkin, pretend to concentrate really hard, and, low and behold – the roll floats! Though the illusion is convincing, the method is silly, and I worry that I’m going to be found out.
Fortunately, my parent’s friends look at me uneasily and ask, “How did you do that?” Of course, I don’t tell them. Instead, I just smirk and think, “Wow. It is shockingly easy to deceive people.”
The first lesson most magicians learn is that the mind is filled with glitches. If you understand the glitches, you can exploit them to create magic. To illustrate this I’ll break the magician’s code and show you how I made that roll float nearly 20 years ago.
Here’s what the audience sees:
Holy shit a floating roll!
Here’s what’s really going on:
Oh. Just a roll on a fork hiding behind a napkin.
The roll is literally being held up by a damn fork. That’s it. I know, the explanation is incredibly underwhelming. Honestly, all magic tricks are underwhelming behind the scenes. But if you saw the floating roll spontaneously at a dinner party after a few drinks, you would be enchanted. The mind just isn’t setup to deconstruct illusions. Instead it defaults to frustration, acceptance, awe, or curiosity.
I’ve been a student of the mind my entire life. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love therapy and meditation; they both shine a bright light in the dark corners of our inner world.
In this article, we’re going to discuss three of the most prominent shortcomings of the human mind and how they affect us. I know it sounds weird to claim that otherwise unique minds have similar glitches, but you won’t have to take my word for any of this. I’ll give you exercises that make them obvious to you. We’ll also discuss how to address these glitches and in doing so, improve your life.
The negativity bias: how it destroys your self-esteem, understanding of the world, and everything in between
What is the negativity bias and why do we have it? The negativity bias is your mind’s tendency to give more attention to a negative stimuli than a positive one. This used to help keep us alive. Imagine that you’re a hunter-gatherer and two things happen simultaneously:
1) A wild boar runs in front of you
2) A venomous snake starts approaching you
If you focus on the boar – which could feed your tribe for weeks – you leave yourself vulnerable to the snake. So, eventually all of the people who naturally focused on the positive – the boar – fell victim to the negative – the snake – and died out. Over time we evolved to pay more attention to the things that threaten us than the things that delight us.
Noticing the negativity bias and how it’s affecting you: a simple thought experiment will help you see the negativity bias in your life. Imagine that you have a performance review with your boss. She gives you two pieces of feedback. The first was she loved your most recent project. She raves about how great you are as a leader and how your work helps the company grow. The second is that she hates how you act in meetings. She criticizes you for making tone-deaf remarks, looking slovenly and wasting company time. She gives both pieces of feedback with equal amounts of energy, detail, and attention.
How would you feel walking out of that performance review? In theory, you should feel neutral. The good and the bad should cancel themselves out. But you wouldn’t feel neutral. Instead, you’d feel horrible, because your mind blows the existential threat (your boss’ criticism) out of proportion. In fact, most of us are so dominated by the negativity bias that we could receive two compliments and one criticism and be moved only by the criticism.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen in performance reviews – it happens all the damn time. It’s why sleights feel worse than compliments feel good. It’s why you replay every crappy thing you said and forget about the wit or insight you offered. And if you have any sort of trauma around attachment, safety or abandonment (and who doesn’t these days?), the negativity bias is going to make the world – both inner and outer – seem more dangerous and volatile than it actually is.
To further complicate the matter the media hijacks the negativity bias to captivate us by covering stories that are negative, frightening and anxiety provoking. This makes all of us worse for the wear and paints a very distorted picture of reality. The end result is that almost all of us feel worse about ourselves and the world than we really should.
Overcoming the negativity bias: overcoming the negativity bias is easier said than done. Here are a few approaches:
Be aware of your mind’s tendency to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. For some people, a simple awareness of the bias can fix the problem. If awareness alone doesn’t work, when you notice yourself going negative, try shifting your focus to notice the good in yourself or the situation. Note: See the final section of this article for more thoughts on this form of self-control.
Reduce the amount of time you spend with the people, activities, and media that exploit the negativity bias, especially inflammatory news sources. Doing so may make it easier for your mind to find balance.
Start a gratitude practice. Consider writing down a few things you’re grateful for each morning, and a few things that went well each evening. This will help train your attention on what’s going well in your life. One of my friends says that he feels like this practice has rewired his mind. There’s a gratitude journal that I love, The Five Minute Journal, which helps you develop this exact habit.
Keep a list of your achievements and compliments. Review the list from time to time, especially when you’re feeling down on yourself. Doing so will help counter balance your mind’s tendency to shit on you.
An important note: the negativity bias is the mother of all mental flaws, at least when it comes to self-esteem and clarity of vision. As you read about the other glitches, keep the negativity bias in mind because none of them would be as detrimental without it.
Your mind routinely hijacks itself and creates needless emotional instability
What is mental hijacking and why do we do it? Have you ever noticed that your body and mind are almost never in the same place at the same time. We move through the world in daydreams, losing ourselves in thought, fantasy, and worry.
The problem is that happiness, connection, and contentment can only be found in the moment, so our tendency to lose ourselves is deceptively destructive. I know that sounds like an absurd claim, but I’ll help you see it in yourself in just a sec.
There are a lot of theories about why our minds are so reluctant to rest in the present. The one that I find most compelling is that being a little bit unhappy (a common side effect of being lost in thought) serves the species. If a lot of people are unhappy, they are likely to begin striving for a better reality, which breeds innovation and development. Another more obvious theory is that if we spend our time lost in thought, we’re likely to worry about the future which will help us pre-empt existential threats. But again, the problem is that worrying primarily leads to anxiety and unhappiness.
Noticing the mental hijacking and how it’s affecting you: like many things related to understanding our minds, pointing out its tendency to be lost in thought is tricky. In hopes of succeeding, I’ll give you three different ways to notice what’s going on:
1) After you’re done reading this sentence, close your eyes, breathe in and out through your nose, and try to count the next 20 breathes without mental interruption.
How’d it go for you? If you’re like most people, you failed. Your mind quickly lost track of the present moment and started thinking about something else. That shift from present focus to mental wandering? That’s the mind hijacking itself. When that happened you became suspended in a daydream.
Again, noticing this – or even just believing it – is deceptively difficult, because almost all of us spend our lives in daydreams, even though we don’t realize it.
2) When you’re done reading this paragraph I want you to pause for a few moments to take in your environment. Notice the sensation in your toes, how vivid the color and motion around you is, the sensations running through your body, the sounds coming from outside, and the feel of the air against your skin.
Doing this should have made you feel like life just clicked into HD. The question is, why do we have to pay special attention to reality to notice it? The best-case scenario is that you are deeply focused on whatever you’re paying attention to and lose the resof of the world along the way. A more common scenario is that your mind is scattered and drifting away from the moment, which tends to lead to needless anxiety, discontent, and unhappiness.
3) When you’re done reading this paragraph, I want you to close your eyes and recall a time when you were truly happy. This could be a great night out with friends, the last time you got laid, a transcendent chocolate cake, playing with your pet, standing atop a tall mountain or anything else. When recalling that moment really let the details sink in. Remember the sights, smells, sounds, images, and feelings.
Once you’ve opened your eyes, check in with yourself. Are you a bit happier now than you were before you began the exercise? Again, this is an instance of your thoughts hijacking you and distorting the present moment. Many people identify with their thoughts so powerfully, that their thoughts have deep sway over their feelings. If you’ve ever spent time mentally reviewing an argument only to find yourself getting heated just thinking about it, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The more you become aware of your thoughts the more you’ll realize that much of life is lived in a daydream (or, in many cases, a low-grade waking nightmare).
Overcoming the mind’s tendency to hijack itself: again, overcoming this particular glitch is easier said than done (a familiar refrain at this point, I know). You basically have to use your mind to defeat it’s own natural tendencies. Here are a few methods that tend to work, though they are best thought of as practices:
A daily meditation practice is the gold standard for breaking the trance of waking life. Developing the practice can be difficult, but many people find the investment to be worth it. More on meditation here.
Minimize your engagement with the things that act like mental napalm, especially your phone, computer, or tablet
Take a moment to really connect with your body and surroundings. Do this several times a day for a few seconds. Personally, I like to focus on the sensations in my toes and fingers, as well as the colors in the room around me. Doing this will draw you out of your thoughts and into the moment.
As you become more adept at drawing yourself into the moment, you’ll notice yourself spontaneously clicking in and out of trance. When this happens make a mental note of it. You can simply say to yourself, “Present.” The more you note the transition between fantasy and reality, the easier it will be to exist in the present.
The unconscious filters in your brain are actively distorting reality
A note about the difference between your mind and the brain:your brain is the mushy physical instrument in your head firing with electricity and running most of the show. Your mind, which most theorists believe arises from your brain, is the invisible part of you that is aware and accounts for your experiences, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, etc.
What are unconscious filters and why do we have them? Our minds can only process a limited number of stimuli at any given time. Depending how you’re wired, the number is somewhere between 3-9 items. That means that virtually everything in the world is being filtered out of your mind in any given moment.
In fact, a lot of magic tricks leverage this exact glitch. If you’re following my hands with your eyes, trying to process the story I’m telling you, actively searching for any misdirection or secret moves while trying to pick a card, I can literally do things in front of your face without you noticing. I know that sounds insane. Again, don’t take my word for it, check out my favorite TED talk ever, “The Art of Misdirection” by Apollo Robbins.
To the best of my understanding, the reason we filter out most of the world is because our brain’s have a limited capacity to support our conscious minds. The brain just seems to have a bottleneck in its ability to consciously track stimulation beyond just a few objects. After you hit that bottleneck, everything else becomes unconscious.
Noticing unconscious filtering and how it’s affecting you: though I could try to point out unconscious filtering in writing, I’ll never be able to do it as well as the video below does. By the way, even if you think you know how the game in the video works, it’s still worth watching as a quick refresher.
Unconscious filtering is likely inescapable. It’s worth discussing though, because of our friend the negativity bias. When you combine unconscious filtering with the negativity bias you start to see yourself, and our world, as being much worse than it actually is. This results, again, in a diminished sense of self, a world that appears more dangerous than it is, and the illusion of flimsy connections to the people you love.
Overcoming the unconscious filtering: since we probably can’t overcome unconscious filtering, we want to focus on overcoming the negative aspects of it. This requires combining the strategies for overcoming the negativity bias and mental hijacking.
First, it’s important to become aware of your own attention. This is a skill that takes a bit of time, but things like meditation, focusing on the sensations in your body, journaling, and eliminating things that fracture your attention will speed up your success.
Second, since you can only focus on a limited number of items, it’s important to tip the scales in your favor. Learning to pay attention to things like compliments, your strengths, gratitude, empowerment, connection, beauty, and optimism will make a very real difference in your life.
By doing these two things, you’ll foster an inner environment that is more capable, empowered, happy, and effective. Think of it as an operating system upgrade.
A closing note on psychology, healing, and the overstated power of thoughts
There’s a stupid belief in the world of psychology (and especially pop psychology) that seems to be taking hold. Specifically, it’s the belief that you can use your thoughts to change your thoughts, and in doing so, improve your life.
It tends to work like this: want to ask the attractive stranger at the coffee shop on a date, but afraid they’ll reject you? Well, reframe your thinking, son! Maybe you’ll fall madly in love, have wild sex and spontaneously buy a winning lottery ticket together. When you think about it that way, you’d be crazy not to go up and say hi.
While reframing your thoughts has the power to be motivating – and at times, soothing – it fails to address the underlying issue sabotaging you in the first place. In the example above, the issue would likely be social anxiety, a failure to understand social norms, or both.
A far better approach is healing the emotional wounds that inspire unhealthy levels of fear, anxiety, depression, disconnect, darkness, etc. As far as I can tell, this level of healing can’t be done with thoughts alone.1
I mention this because I don’t want you to believe that simply understanding your thoughts – or even fostering awareness about how your mind works – is a reasonable replacement for therapy and healing. It’s not. If you’ve been struggling with life for more than a month or so (and lord knows I’ve been there), then consider getting real help. On it’s own, no amount of reading, theorizing, or understanding, will heal your deep wounds.