Embracing your dark edges

“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:

  • Explosive sports: boxing, martial arts, CrossFit, axe throwing, football, wrestling, etc.
  • Expressive arts: dancing, painting, singing, chanting, writing, etc.
  • Professional or philanthropic endeavors that make use of your edge: entrepreneurship, negotiation, leadership, acquisitions, demolition, penetration testing, etc.

Another way to do this is to channel your edge and use it for personal or spiritual growth:

  • Spend meaningful time in silence and solitude. When intense emotions take over, allow yourself to surrender to them. Then approach them with curiosity.
  • Study nature and the ancient myths of our world, both of which are rich with stunning moments of darkness and light. Use what you learn in your approach to life.
  • Take on some of the more difficult and esoteric practices of your religion or spirituality.

By allowing the darker parts of yourself to play in their own arenas, your life – and the lives you touch – will move more vividly into the light.

– 9 –

Through it all though, remember this: you are a literal force of nature. To lose sight of that is to lose sight of your own humanity.  

30 ways to set boundaries: a guide for people pleasers

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:

  1. 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. 
  2. Say no to the stuff that doesn’t interest you and explain why you’re saying no. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.” 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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. 
  7. Send the call to voicemail. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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?” 
  10. 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. 
  11. 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.
  12. 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. 
  13. 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. 
  14. 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. 
  15. 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.” 
  16. 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.” 
  17. Just change the damn topic. 
  18. 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…” 
  19. 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. 
  20. 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. 
  21. 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. 
  22. 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. 

  23. 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. 
  24. 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. 
  25. Don’t respond to work emails or texts on the weekend unless you really want to. 
  26. 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. 
  27. 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 use clarity.fm. 
  28. Memorize and use the phrase, “I’d rather not answer that.” 
  29. While you’re at it, memorize the phrase, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet,” too. 
  30. 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.

 

The mechanics of your mind

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.

The curse of moderate success

May, 2009: It was advice I didn’t want to hear. I was trying to start a business and busy dreaming of a comfortable life – one with a nice apartment, vacations in Costa Rica and an exotic sports car. J*, a trusted mentor, turned to me said, “You know Jason, if you do become successful, you can’t get too comfortable. Comfort is the enemy. A little is deceptively dangerous; a lot will stunt your growth. Someone who’s hungrier and more driven will overtake you. Comfort will kill your lust for life.”

***

One thing that no one mentions is that moderate amounts of success can – and probably will – sabotage you. It’ll hold you back more than the fear of failure ever could. This is especially true if initial success came quickly for you; the same success you fought so hard for risks stunting your growth. When I think about the ways I could derail my life, becoming too comfortable and too complacent tops the list. Here are the demons I look out for:

Earned laziness preventing me from working hard. In most cases, finding initial success requires endless rejection, false starts, loved ones trying to ground you, navigating an unruly marketplace, and your own inner critic doing her best to fuck your shit up.

But along with that sense of achievement that comes with beating the odds there’s often a subtle sense of earned entitlement. You’ve given everything you have to give, and you’re at the top of the game. It doesn’t feel like you should have to keep working, fighting, doubting, and risking it all anymore. It feels like you should be done, like you should already have the relationships, skills, reputation and knowledge to open any door.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What got you here won’t get you to your next destination. You’ll have to return to being a beginner, being humble, moving slowly and getting crappy results for months or years on end. You’ll be less successful than the people around you again. You’ll have to let go of the sense of being on top of the world in order to create the mental and emotional space you’ll need for even bigger battles.

You once told yourself that anything worth having doesn’t come easily. That allowed you to keep working and get to where you are now. For better or for worse, that still rings true.

The hidden fear of losing myself makes it easy to perpetually focus on something else. As you know, leveling up will require sacrificing a lot of what you’ve already built. I know from experience that it sucks. I spent nine years building my speaking practice. At the top of my game, I was one of the best in the market, but I scrapped it to build my consulting practice. It took me four years to build that business. Now, I’m scrapping that too, because my heart’s no longer in it. I kind of feel like I’m losing pieces myself as I sacrifice old projects to start new ones. It’s destabilizing and scary.

Yet the fact remains: you’re going to have to do the same damn thing. If you’ve identified yourself with your current success (and who hasn’t?), then it’s going to feel like you’re losing yourself as you grow into your next project. But creation can’t be untethered from destruction. That’s just the way it goes.

Perhaps even more frightening, you’re going to have to deal with rejection again, too. If you want to grow, you’ll have to jump right back into the fire. It’ll be painful, but it’s less painful than stagnation and frustration.

Of course, you’ll fight against this. You’ll tell yourself that since you’ve become successful, it’s unacceptable for you to put out anything besides perfect work. Obviously, this is nowhere near true. The only path forward is to do your best and polish up in real time. Don’t worry, if you’re dedicated enough, you’ll be fine.  

I’d love to be able to give you life hacks or something that would allow you to avoid facing these fears. But you and I both know that these are demons you’ll have to stare straight in the eye (and do your best not to blink). The good news is that you’re perfectly capable.

Comfort enables me to keep pushing off my next dream. When you first built your life, you may have felt fear and entitlement, but you mastered them. You had no other choice. You were hungry and that was enough to fire you forward. Now you’ve got enough time, money and status to keep you happy(ish). Where there was once a burning hunger that fired you forward, there’s now comfort – maybe even a sense of responsibility. If you really want to own your next great adventure, you’ll have to sacrifice the comfort that keeps you immobilized. I don’t mean that you need to give up your nice home, dinners out or your social life. What I mean is that you’ll have to notice the tension and resistance in your body that begs you not to start the new project. You’ll have to notice your mind sabotaging you with compelling arguments in favor of procrastination. And when you notice these things, you’ll have to fight against them again, and again, and again.

So, how do you overcome the curse of semi-success?

The good news is that the curse of comfort and semi-success is one that you can break. Here’s one way of doing it:

Take some time off. Like a month or two. Travel, learn an instrument, stay at home and rest, whatever. It doesn’t really matter what you do, you just need to remove yourself from your work and routine. This will help you regain your identity as a creator, a fighter, and a risk taker. It will allow time for your next dream to take residence in your heart. Perhaps most importantly, it will give you a moment to rest. The battle in front of you is real. You’ll win, of course, but you’ll probably have to leave it all on the field. Don’t worry. You’ve done this before, and you can do it again.

Allow new motivation to take over. In the past you were able to motivate yourself with raw hunger, but you can’t do that anymore. You’re too successful. You need to find something different to inspire yourself. Personally, I like to spend time imagining two different realities. First, I vividly imagine embracing my dream life. I try to generate feelings of excitement and gratitude for the life I want to create. Then, I try to imagine what would happen if I fail to act on my dreams. I try to generate feelings of fear, depression, and regret. The sharp contrast of my dream and nightmare makes it easier to take action.

Some people find it motivating to spell out their vision for themselves. If you’re one of those people, I highly recommend Cameron Harold’s book, “Vivid Vision.

Now return to the game. What did you do last time that enabled you to succeed? Did you apply to 117 jobs and move to Colorado? Did you do 50 cold calls a week? Did you go back to school even though you were a decade older than your classmates? Whatever you did, you needed courage and dedication. While the path may be different this time around, you’ll still need the same fuel. Your only job is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to accept failure. Depending on how you look at it, it’s as easy as that, or as complicated as that. The trick, as always, is to fall in love with the process.

PS: An entirely different solution to the curse of semi-success

There is a different approach to dealing with semi-success, and it’s one I’m a big fan of. Learn to be content with what you have. It’s already more than enough. What will your next big victory really do for you anyways? You don’t actually believe that more money1, more status, a bigger home, a hotter lover, or more fame will change anything for you, do you? Chances are they’ll just further fuck you up.

If you’re hunting success for the sake of validation, then you’ll never have enough. I’ve fallen into that trap dozens of times in my life. While falling in love with what you have may prove just as hard as becoming more successful, it’s almost guaranteed to be more satisfying and meaningful.

Sneaking up on happiness

August 2018: It’s been months since the last wild night with the boys, ambitious project at work, or whirlwind romance. Given that pretending to be a rock star is one of my favorite pastimes, this is a dramatic change of pace for me. I feel… boring.

And yet, despite the boredom, happiness keeps sneaking up and slapping me in the face. I notice it coming home from the gym, making dinner with a friend, going for a walk in the mountains, or working from a coffee shop on a Friday. After a year defined by just trying to keep my head above water, this is a very welcome change of pace.

***

I’m a bit reluctant to publish this article. Not because it’s controversial, but because it’s simple. In fact, the idea is so simple that I can sum it up in a sentence: you can significantly increase your happiness by removing the things that destabilize you and make you unhappy.

I realize that for many people, this is obvious. Still though, it took me nearly 33 years to understand it. Even still, it’s easier said than done; we often end up addicted to or identified with the things that make us unhappy. So, with that in mind, I’ll break down the process that I used to find stable happiness in hopes that it will serve you too.

Kill the bull in your china shop

Most of us have one or two things that create a disproportionate amount of chaos or unhappiness in our lives. It can be an unhealthy relationship, a lack of discipline, a dormant dream, a crappy job or boss, a lack of self-care or self-esteem, an addiction, the need to lose weight, unresolved trauma, or a million other things.

You may already know the biggest sources of your stress and unhappiness. If not, they tend to exhibit a few common traits: it’s the stuff that keeps you up at night, that you dread when you have to deal with it, that fill your body with tension, or that you spend the most time worrying and complaining about.

If you’re still struggling to pinpoint what’s sabotaging you, consider asking a few close friends if they have any idea about what’s going on. Keep in mind that you may not love what you hear. One of my best friends looked me right in the eye and said, “You love chaos man. You always have. You won’t really be happy or stable until you shake that.” Talk about bitter medicine, but also a true friend.  

Once you’ve identified the major roadblock(s), work to eliminate or fix them. I know that most self-help people will encourage you to make changes quickly, but I don’t buy it. I think there’s something to be said for moving slowly here. Besides, if you need to change something big, like your job, you may need to move slow if you want to do it responsibly.

For me, the biggest barrier to happiness was work. My heart was no longer in my consulting practice, and I needed to figure out what my next move was. Instead of blindly rushing towards the next shiny object, I spent a year experimenting with different options until I found the right move, and starting in January, I’ll begin a new career.1

And don’t feel like you need to go it alone either. When I was 30, I spent months in therapy removing some of the obstacles to happiness from my life. If you’re dealing with a particularly difficult problem, recruit support.

Return to stability by eliminating instability

Next, remove all of the things that reliably destabilize you.

For me, this included eliminating:

  • Caffeine (I love coffee more than life itself, but caffeine makes me jittery and destroys my sleep)2
  • Dating (there weren’t huge gaps between my last few girlfriends, and I could benefit from some time on my own)
  • Work drama (I cut my hours and services, and only took on home-run clients; this slashed my income but saved my sanity)  
  • Career change drama (I started telling people who offered unsolicited advice that I appreciated their intent but didn’t want to hear their opinions)

Of course, you may need to eliminate other things. A few areas to consider:

  • Video games
  • Alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs
  • Lying
  • Sugar
  • Casual or reckless sex
  • Excessive screen time (think: TV, internet, your phone, movies, etc.)
  • Extreme busyness
  • Constant travel
  • Pornography
  • Etc.

Don’t limit yourself to this list. If there’s something else you think you’d benefit from giving up, then try that.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to give these things up forever. Letting go of them for two or three months should help you find increased stability. After that you can decide for yourself whether or not you’d like to add them back in.

An uncomfortable note: if the idea of giving something up makes you anxious, then you should really explore that. Ask yourself why you’re so afraid of letting go. We often engage in mild (or serious) forms of addiction, anxiety and compulsive behavior as a protective measure to help us avoid deeper issues. The problem is those deeper issues will continue to sabotage us until we address them, and if we’re using addiction or anxiety as an unconscious avoidance technique, then we’re effectively shooting ourselves in the foot. Again, no need to do this on your own; if necessary, get the help you need.

Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is more of an art than a science. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: when someone treats you differently than you’d like to be treated, let them know. If they continue treating you poorly, consider spending less time with them.

Keep in mind that you can – and should – set boundaries with yourself too. One personal example is that I try to only take unscheduled calls when I’m genuinely excited to chat with whoever is calling me. If I’m busy or just not in the mood, I let it go to voicemail and call them back some other time.

Will you or the people you care about be perfect at setting and respecting boundaries? Nope. We’re messy creatures guaranteed to make mistakes. The important part is letting people know when they’ve upset you and that they, in turn, strive to change their behavior. Of course, it’s on you to respect other people’s boundaries as well.

Fill the space with stuff you love

If you’ve followed along so far, there’s a good chance that eliminating things has left you with some free time. One option is to leave the space open and allow yourself to hang out in the grey for a while. That’s what I did. It took a bit of time to adjust, but now, I love it. I sleep, read, see friends, try to play ukulele, watch The Wire, and go for more walks. Of course, this won’t go on forever – I have a small project in October, and a huge one in January. But for now, I’m really cherishing the space.  

The other option is to dedicate some of your newfound time to things that you know make you happy. While there are countless ways of doing this, here’s some of the stuff that tends to work:

  • Engaging more with spirituality, religion, or nature
  • Creating art
  • Practicing meditation or gratitude
  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Exercising
  • Reading

Keep in mind that the goal isn’t to keep your life on hold forever. The goal is to build a solid foundation of happiness to operate from and slowly begin to add stuff. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that you no longer crave the things that used to sabotage you or that they no longer have the destabilizing effect they once did.

PS: You may not recognize yourself at first – I didn’t

September 2018, after spending 5 minutes updating N* on what I’ve been up to lately: “…so that’s the gist of it man. I’ve been boring and happy. I don’t know that I have tons of stories to regale you with.”

N*: “Dude, what are you talking about? You just told me that in the past week you saw Nine Inch Nails, spent two nights in the mountains with friends, published a well-received article, and hit a grand slam for your client. Why do you think you’re boring?”

***

It was kind of surreal when N* held the mirror up for me. For the first time, I understood that I failed to recognize some of the quieter emotions. Most of 2018 was defined by feelings and experiences that burn brightly, like chaos, drama, and anxiety. Happiness, at least for me, is a bit different. It’s kind of like a warm breeze on an already perfect evening – if you don’t know what to look for, you may not even notice it.  

It may take a beat for your system to calm down enough to appreciate the more subtle experiences of life. Change always brings a bit of discomfort and if you’re used to instability, then your resting state may be one of heightened alertness.

That’s what happened to me. Without realizing it, I adopted a kind of always-on-guard stance in life. I needed to let go of the anxiety that kept me poised in order to let the waves of joy wash over me.

Using gratitude to shape your future

For years, thought leaders and pop-psychologists have been telling us that gratitude is the long lost secret to happiness, success, harmonious relationships, wild sex, financial abundance, world peace, and the perfect brownie recipe with crispy edges and gooey middles. There’s even a bunch of quasi-compelling science to support gratitude’s transformational power.

When I first started reading about these practices, I was totally seduced. For months, I started each day by writing five or ten things I was grateful for. I tried to tell myself that I was becoming happier and that success was right around the corner.

And of course… nothing much changed. I wrote gratitude off as one of the countless things that seemed like it should improve my life, but didn’t.

That is, until earlier this year when my friend Charlie taught me a simple gratitude practice.

1) Begin by sitting down and spending a bit of time thinking about the future you want to create for yourself.1

2) Once you have a clear picture of that future, try to foster feelings of gratitude and excitement for it.

3) Let those feelings wash over you for a little while.

4) That’s it. Open your eyes and move on with your life. I know it seems like it should be more complicated than that, but it isn’t.

I’ve been spending a minute or two each morning doing this exercise, and I love it. Has it allowed me to effortlessly manifest my dream life as if by magic? No.2 Has it at least made it so that I never have bad days anymore? Of course not. However, it has made a very real difference. So far, it has:

  • Helped me see my path. I tend to take the scenic route in life, just sort of cruising around without a clear destination. While there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, it makes getting to where you’re going sort of impossible. Thanks in part to this practice, I now have a very clear idea of where I want to go both personally and professionally. Though this might not seem like a big deal, it’s exciting for me. 
  • Shown me how to stay easily focused and motivated. Since I finally know where I’m going, it’s become much easier for me to agree to the right stuff and decline the wrong stuff. It’s also made avoiding procrastination far, far easier because I don’t struggle with motivation as much as I used to. 
  • Made me happier in the moment (and equipped me to shape a better future). A simple truth about the flow of time: the present is the only gateway to the future. In other words, if you want to improve your future you can only do so by improving your present. Spending a few minutes feeling excited and grateful for what’s to come gives me more energy and creativity in the moment. 
  • Helped me find a bit of magic in the mundane. Though technically this practice is future facing, I’ve also started to notice how amazing my present is. I’ve found myself delighted by simple things that I never used to notice like my bamboo plant, or the feel of the fresh summer air. Given that this has been an unusually demanding year, appreciating the little things has meant a lot to me.

PS: Two other gratitude practices I love

While the practice above is the only gratitude exercise that I do every day, there are two others that I really love and wanted to share.

1) The Five-Minute Journal. The Five-Minute Journal is a minimal and beautifully designed gratitude journal. It guides you to spend a few minutes each morning writing down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would make the day great. In the evening, you spend a few minutes reflecting on what went well and what could have been better. Simple. Fun. Effective.

2) Mailing thank you cards. Recently, I’ve been mailing thank you cards expressing appreciation for the roles certain people play in my life. Doing this brings me more joy than I expected. It also strengthens my relationships. I’d like to tell you that I’m disciplined and I do it every Friday or whatever, but that’s not the case. Instead, I leave a box of correspondence cards around my apartment, and write a note or two when I feel inspired.

Getting out of a rut part 2: overcoming the hidden fear and self-sabotage that’s holding you back

Note: this is the second installment in a two-part series on getting out of a rut. The first part, which can be found here, is on emotional spring-cleaning.

One subtle characteristic of being in a rut is that we become self-obsessed. We ruminate over the past and where we went wrong. We scornfully replay all of the mediocre decisions that left us feeling hopeless and strung out. We get taken over by anger at ourselves and others for the ways we feel wronged. The self-obsession artificially amplifies any stress, anxiety, or depression we’re already dealing with. We begin to define ourselves by it.

How many times have we all told ourselves that we won’t waste the day, only to waste the entire. fucking. day. As though that weren’t bad enough, we’ll most likely feel bad about that decision, doubling down on the self-resentment.

But do you see the vortex we’ve created here? All of your attention is on yourself, and since you’re not feeling well right now, you’re magnifying the bad stuff.

There is a weird evolutionary logic to this type of behavior. Obsessing over our mistakes is protective. It keeps you firmly planted in your rut and prevents you from exposing yourself to the potential perils of the world again.

Generally, we approach getting out with a combination of discipline and new behaviors. We tell ourselves that we’ll spend time learning to play ukulele, hitting the gym, going to improv classes, saying “yes” more often, taking a trip, etc. And while I like all of these moves for their own merit, they fail to cut through the trance of self-obsession. Instead, they act as healthy distractions.

A far better move is to shift your attention away from yourself and toward others. Volunteering is one amazing way to do this. Find a cause that you care about, and dedicate some of your time and attention to it each week. In this troubled world, there is always a cause in need of volunteers. To name just a few:

  • Walking and caring for animals at local shelters
  • Helping the homeless meet their material and existential needs at missions, kitchens, and shelters
  • Stocking and amassing supplies for food pantries
  • Working on political campaigns to help shape your communities (this is a big one for me right now)
  • Getting involved with community development projects in struggling areas locally and globally
  • Championing environmental issues
  • Assisting the elderly and infirm with the day-to-day chores of living
  • Teaching, tutoring, or participating in after-school programs
  • Spending time as a big brother or big sister to an at risk youth in your town

A lot of people get stuck in the rut. Again, I get it. Ruts start to feel so familiar that staying in them is easier than breaking them. If you can, scrape together just enough energy to spend an hour or two each week working to improve the lives of others. Doing so, zenfully, will improve your life and help you get out of the rut.

If you don’t know where to start, consider volunteering at an animal shelter. You’ll meet other cool people and be surrounded by the unbounded love and playfulness of cute animals. And seriously, it’s hard not to feel charmed when a puppy wants to play or a kitten curls up in your lap.

Getting out of a rut part 1: emotional spring-cleaning

Summer, 2018, during a brutal silent meditation retreat: It’s been two days since I’ve had significant human contact. Worse still, my thoughts are dominating me. There’s no corner of my mind that isn’t overrun by fears about work, love, loss, the past, the future, and… everything. I’ve given up attempting to sit still, and I decide to go for a walk in the forest.  

It doesn’t help.

Out of quasi desperation, I try something new. Instead of trying to fight against the difficult thoughts and feelings, I accept them. I accept that – at least for now – my mind is a mess.

When I stop fighting against myself, things change. My mind slows down a bit and I feel more present. For the first time, I’m able to take in the forest.

As I sit with the conflicting experiences of being dominated by my mind, and stunned by the natural beauty, something surprising happens: I feel months of existential weight leave my body.

Though I hadn’t realized it, I was being owned and defined by my recent past and clinging to it’s darkness. Now, seemingly without intention or effort, its grip is loosening. I’m coming back to myself. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be light like this.

***

As many readers know, the first three quarters of 2018 kicked my ass. Deaths, breakups, lawsuits, professional missteps – the whole thing. It left me feeling weak and exposed to the elements. In truth, a lot of it was my fault. I drifted out of integrity and suffered the consequences.

As anyone who’s gone through a difficult time knows, the darkness has a quiet seduction to it. Friends shower us with care and attention, giving us an easy excuse to mope around and watch TV. As our motivation tanks, being down and out starts to feel familiar and almost comfortable. What should have been a week or two of pain turns into months of shit.

The trick is to dust yourself off, put the darkness behind you, and come back to yourself. For some, this seems to happen automatically. For others, like me, it helps to go through an emotional decluttering process and address any lingering anger or tension. Think of it as spring-cleaning for the heart and mind.

In this article, the first of a two part series, we’ll cover different techniques to help you complete your past and create optimal conditions for letting go. Concurrently, you’ll free up mental and emotional space for you to grow into the new – often better – version of yourself

Begin by holding time for yourself

When life sucks, one of the first things to go is our connection to ourselves. The loss of connection is subtle; we often feel connected because we’re mesmerized by the darkness, but to focus on the darkness is to lose sight of the rest of the world. And I promise you that there are plenty of beautiful things remaining in your life.

Begin the process of emotional spring-cleaning by holding space for yourself. Personally, I went to my favorite coffee shop and spent an hour or two journaling each day for two weeks. I’d grab a drink, sit down with a journal and pen, and process whatever was on my mind. A few times a week, I also went for long walks at night without my phone.

While these sessions may begin dark, they will allow you to shine light on what happened. Along the way, you’ll notice plenty of great things about yourself and your life that you likely missed. Allowing space for yourself burns off some of the negative energy that’s been following you around.

Understand that you may need white space in your life

Depending on the intensity of the shit you’re recovering from, you may notice that it’s changed you. I’m the type of guy who rushes head first into the future. While this makes my life exciting and fast paced, it’s little more than a thinly veiled defense mechanism. Rushing into the future prevents me from dwelling in the moment and addressing any lingering difficulties. Inevitably, the stuff I ignore catches up to me.

A far better approach is to move slow, rest, become reacquainted with yourself, and allow time for dreaming again. Erik Erikson, a psychologist, referred to this as a moratorium and considered it an integral part of maturing. In fact, future be damned – work to build a present that you fall in love with.

As dreams begin to capture you, talk through a few of your ideas with friends. Imagine how different futures would make you feel before you start work on them. Eventually your next real dream will start to capture you. For now though, just try to get comfortable with the in-between.

Reinforce the foundations

How’s your self-care? If your life is anything like mine, self-care tends to atrophy when life gets hard. If that’s happened, take some time now to reinforce the foundations. Clean up your sleep, diet and exercise. Reconnect with your friends. If there are books, albums or works of art that have influenced you, revisit them. If you have spiritual, religious or psychological practice that slipped through your fingers, now is a good time to pick them back up.

While you’re at it, consider taking care of all that personal maintenance stuff you’ve been putting off too: cleaning your home, balancing your accounts, getting a physical, going to the dentist, etc. The day after I got back from the retreat I went to the dentist for the first time in too long. Yeah. I was being a glutton for punishment that week. That said, there was a silver lining: no cavities!

Happiness can often be found in eliminating the stuff that drags you down. Take a bit of time to consider removing things from your life that no longer serve you. This can include moving, getting rid of an office you don’t use, making basic repairs, selling or donating stuff that’s been cluttering your space, etc.

If there are any hard conversations you still need to have, now is the time

To get back into integrity, I needed to have sticky conversations with a bunch of people (lucky me) including: business partners, a client and an ex. None of them were pleasant; all of them were 100% worth it.

As you work to complete your past, you should also be leaning into any pending difficult conversations. These can include asserting yourself more thoroughly, apologizing, asking for an apology, fixing a mistake, correcting a deception, or expressing appreciation. Though hard conversations suck to get through, having them will make rebuilding yourself far easier. You’ll no longer be weighed down by the feeling of needing to fix things with some of the people in your life.

Depending on the situation you can write an email, place a call, or talk face to face. Personally I’m a face-to-face guy when at all possible, but you do you.

More on handling difficult conversations here.

Thank the people who helped you through

My friends spent countless hours letting me lean on them and talking me through career moves, broken hearts, business decisions and other mini-dramas.  As a thank you (and as a way of letting go of the past) I bought a bunch of correspondence cards and wrote notes to the people who helped me.

I’ve always hated writing thank you cards, but this was surprisingly joyful. It was nice to slow down and acknowledge the difference my friends made for me. I hope the cards were as delightful to receive as they were to write.

If you’re working to complete the past for yourself, I urge you to express gratitude and appreciation for the people who have supported you. If you only take one practice from this article, make it this one.

Finally do something nice for yourself

Skillfully handling dark phases of life is like being forged by fire. All at once everything is beautiful and painful, chaotic and controlled, creative and destructive.

When the world beats you down, it’s important to become a champion for yourself. While there are all sorts of sophisticated ways of doing this, I’m a fan of a simple approach: do something nice for you. Schedule a massage or a spa day. Take a trip. Spend a long weekend with your best friend. Get yourself a gift or a chocolate cake. Skip work and spend the afternoon sailing. You deserve it.