2020 personal review: lessons, losses, victories, and books

Ya, so 2020 sucked for me too. While there were some nice things that happened, including beginning work as a therapist, they pale in comparison to the shit we all dealt with.

I know that a lot of people who write online – especially “influencers” – try to make it seem like they’re thriving amidst the pandemic. The implication is that if you aren’t doing great right now, you’re underperforming. How stupid.

So I share this review for two reasons. First, it’s tradition. You can find past annual reviews here: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016. Second, I want to double down on normalizing the ebbs and flows of loneliness, boredom, and distress we’ve all been feeling this year.

THE LESSONS

1) The future is uncertain. I think we all learned this in 2020. In January, I thought I knew how my year would look: finish grad school, GirlTalk concert in DC with W*, see friends and family in the US and Canada, a week or two to myself in Mexico, licensure exams, and then get to work as a therapist.

Much of that never ended up happening, which brings me to another lesson I think we all learned…

2) It’s people and experiences that make life shine brightly. Thank you to my people – I’ve seen so few of you this year. I miss you dearly.

3) The systematic violence and oppression facing the BIPOC community is far worse than I understood. I’ve been at least somewhat aware of the dramatic levels of inequality and inequity in the US and beyond since high school. However, 2020 made it clear that I still have a lot to learn about the structures of oppression and privilege. I realized that working to educate myself, identifying my unconscious biases, and becoming a better advocate and ally is  a life-long process. It’s something I intend to work on day-to-day as well as year-to-year.

4) Integrity keeps paying off. Long time readers know that I spent 2016 trying to be as honest as I possibly could. Since then I’ve continued to prioritize honesty in word and action. Among other things this year, I ended a long-term business relationship that was out of integrity (that was hard, but the obvious right thing to do), and found a fair price for my psychotherapy services. I started my career in entrepreneurship as a speaker and consultant. In those fields, the goal is to charge as much as you can.  As a therapist, I want to aim at a different target and instead, worked to find a price that is fair to myself and my clients. 1 

5) Sometimes it’s really nice to just do nothing. Seriously. A few months ago I texted J* complaining that I was bored. His advice, “Try staring at the ceiling for 10-15 minutes. It’s relaxing and you’ll get tons of crazy ideas.” He was right! Once you get past the resistance, doing nothing is just lovely. I find myself flopping down on the bed and just doing nothing a few times a week.

WHAT I STRUGGLED WITH

1) I worked too much. When I went back to school and started training to be a meditation teacher a few years ago, I chose to keep working full time as a consultant to stay afloat financially. So I knew what I was signing up for there. What I didn’t anticipate was that there would be a pandemic, economic crisis, and racial unease taking place as I finished grad school and licensure. Because of the need for mental and spiritual health services, I was teaching meditation and practicing therapy far sooner than anticipated. I went from 60+ hour work weeks in school to… 60+ hour work weeks after school.

In late October, upon finishing my second level of licensure as well as a handful of post-grad trainings, my schedule finally slowed down. After two years of overworking myself, it took weeks for my body and mind to let go of the stress and pressure that I became accustomed to. I’m glad to report that I’ve returned to a healthy work-life balance for the first time since 2018.

2) Life during the pandemic is legit hard – especially now. I experienced more boredom, loneliness, isolation, frustration, anger, and confusion in 2020 than any year I can recall. With time, I developed strategies to help cope (those strategies as well as how you can develop your own here), but life is nowhere near as good now as it was pre-pandemic. I longingly look forward to seeing loved ones and engaging with the world.

One thing that I haven’t written about that helps me cut through the darkness is practicing metta. Metta is a type of meditation focused on feelings of warmth and connection. For me, it makes a meaningful difference. If you’re interested, I recommend starting with Sharon Salzberg’s guided, “Lovingkindness Meditation” on the Insight Meditation Timer app.

3) I f*cked up a few hard conversations with the same mistake. I’ve been refining my ability to manage difficult conversations since 2016. I’ve learned to reflect on my role in the conflict first, gauge how much the other person can offer, and listen with increased openness.

What I’m still learning is that sometimes I need to take a few days to compose my thoughts and feelings before I take action. There were a few times in 2020 where if I had just paused to cool down and approach these conversations from a place of being fully resourced, I could have saved myself and loved ones a lot of heartache.

WHAT WENT WELL

1) I finished grad school, completed multiple post grad trainings, received my teacher’s blessing to teach meditation, passed the Jurisprudence Exam to practice therapy in Colorado, and passed the Association of Social Work Board’s Licensed Clinical Social Worker Exam. It felt unimaginably good to get all of those things done. It took several years in my late 20’s and early 30’s to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Another six months to bite the bullet and own the decision to go back to school. Then, after nearly two years of classes, internships, and licensure procedures, I did it, and it feels so damn good.

2) I love my job (finally)! I’ve been working at least part time since I was six years old (gotta love being an in demand child entertainer…). However, in hindsight, I never really loved my work until I became a therapist this year. You might think that when my work was more extravagant- when clients flew me around the world, audiences filled auditoriums, and I made a lot more money than I do now – that I would have been happier. Nope. That stuff was flashy, but it was never my heart’s work. Working as a therapist and meditation teacher is. It feels like such a privilege that people choose me as their therapist and that we get to walk down the path of building a better inner life together. Unreal!

To the clients who have trusted me with their hope and the most vulnerable parts of themselves: thank you. You’ve added more to my life than you realize, and I hope I’ve served you well.    

MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2020

One of the thin silver linings of the pandemic is that I got a lot of reading done. My favorites of 2020 in no particular order:

Fiction

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison (Bookshop, Amazon) was the best book I read this year. I read it as race riots were taking place just blocks away from my apartment. I could hear helicopters, police cars, and shouts as I read. “The Bluest Eye” is a story about discrimination, poverty, abuse, and neglect told through the lens of young Pecola, a black girl living in post-depression Ohio. When you pause to realize that this book was written 50 years ago it’s hard for your heart not to break; we still have so far to go. Morrison is a stunning writer with a keen eye for social commentary. If you haven’t read this book I urge you to push it to the top of your list.

In a similar vein, I also loved “Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi (Bookshop, Amazon), a true book of the times. Gifty is a brilliant first-generation immigrant whose family is torn apart by addiction, discrimination, and globalization. Along the way she wrestles with her relationships to faith, science, mental health, and family. Gyasi makes writing about these things look easy. I tore through this book and was sad when it ended.

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers (Bookshop, Amazon) lingered on my mind for months. It’s a captivating story about how trees shape our lives. It’s told through the perspective of multiple characters whose lives overlap. It changed my relationship to nature, the wilderness, and humanity. I was able to get my book club to read it and they (mostly) loved it too.

For 2020, Brandon Sanderson gets his own category. After about two years, I finished all of the books in the Cosmere (except the two that were just released)! My favorite so far is the novella, “The Emperor’s Soul” (Bookshop, Amazon).  “The Emperor’s Soul,” which can be read as a standalone, is a gorgeous blend of escape heist, absorption, crime, and existentialism. I’m not at all surprised it won a Hugo. For those of you who are interested in diving into the Cosmere start with either “The Way of Kings” (Bookshop, Amazon) or “The Final Empire” (Bookshop, Amazon). I also tore through the first two books in the “Skyward” series (Bookshop, Amazon). “Skyward” is one-part space opera, one-part dystopia, and one-part coming of age story. It’s like “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, (Bookshop, Amazon) which I loved, but better.

I first read “Dharma Bums” by Kerouac (Bookshop, Amazon) at a hostel in Swaziland 15 years ago. I reread it on a (pre-pandemic) trip to the East Coast in early 2020. As I read, I caught myself choking back tears in the airport lounge. It’s not that this book is so beautiful I couldn’t contain myself (like most of Kerouac’s work it’s intermittently beautiful and irritating). It’s that “Dharma Bums” captured so much of the joys and struggles of my 20’s. This manic seeking for…something…through a chaotic blend of …everything… resonated deeply. After I finished “Dharma Bums” I wrote a letter to C*, whose path was similar to mine when we met. These days he’s an award-winning director and writer. Together C* and I lived through manic years of joy, confusion, connection, disconnection, and chaos just trying to understand a bit about ourselves and the world. And while I was grateful to revisit that chapter of my life, I’m also glad to have left it behind.      

Comics

My parents have a pet cockatiel, Roger, who I adore. She’s hyper, funny, loving, confident and irritating. Before Roger, there were two other cockatiels, Rosie and Rocco (for an account of one of my favorite pranks, which involved Rosie, check out the second PS here). If you or someone you know loves parrots, and especially cockatiels, the book “Chicken Thoughts” by Sarah Wymer (Bookshop, Amazon) is basically the best thing ever. These comics capture the soul of cockatiels in all their charming, beautiful, and frustrating glory. 

Non-fiction

“Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Gregory Boyle (Bookshop, Amazon) was the most uplifting book I read this year. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a non-profit that works with gang members in LA to help them heal and build a better life. “Tattoos on the Heart” is a collection of stories and insights from Boyle’s work. It offers enlightening – and at times, heartbreaking – commentary on how we fail and succeed at lifting one another up. Boyle describes a Christian God that is very different from the mainstream interpretation. I found myself quoting Boyle with some of my more religious clients and friends. Though some of the stories in this book are heart wrenching, ultimately, it lifted me up and reminded me of what I love most about people.

There were two books on psychology and spirituality whose practices I routinely recommended to clients throughout the year. The first was “Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN” by Tara Brach (Bookshop, Amazon). The second was “Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” by Kristen Neff (Bookshop, Amazon). Both books blend psychology and mindfulness to deliver concrete strategies for fostering self-love and self-compassion. If you lean towards ancestral wisdom start with Brach’s book. If you lean towards research, go with Neff’s. Either way, they’re both excellent and contain tools that I use with clients and myself. 

I encouraged my parents and brother to read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande (Bookshop, Amazon). Gawande explores the practical and philosophical elements of dying in the US. How will you make it easy for your next of kin to decide whether to resuscitate you or let you pass? How will you know when you’re ready to die? Would you rather spend your last days in a nursing home with strict rules but lots of care, or in your own home with more freedom and less care? Death can be confronting, but it warrants careful thought and anticipation. Though my parents likely have decades left, I encouraged them to read this book so we could use it as a jumping off point for conversations about their end-of-life care. Gawande does something that seems impossible: he writes about death, dying, and the medical system in a way that’s absolutely captivating. This was another book I read in two or three days. 

Andrew Yang’s “The War on Normal People” (Bookshop, Amazon) offered compelling arguments about why we should be concerned about the future of the middle and lower classes in the US. He also proposes solutions to preempt those problems. His ideas range from existential (incentivizing community and generosity), to technological, to financial (Universal Basic Income). In a country ruled disproportionately by old white men who mostly react to problems, it was refreshing to read a book by a younger person of color who is interested in predicting problems and responding proactively.

When I gave up hope of taking a surf trip to Mexico, I picked up “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan (Bookshop, Amazon) instead, and good lord is this book charming. Driven by Finnegan’s (arguably unhealthy) obsession with surfing, he discusses his childhood in Hawaii, various relationships, his development as a writer, and his far flung travels as he sought the next great wave. Learning that a memoir about surfing won a Pulitzer seems strange at first. But when you read it, it makes total sense.

==

So that’s a wrap on 2020. May all of us – individually and collectively – fair better in 2021. 

On being nice to yourself: 3-steps to self-compassion

“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

 – Galway Kinnell in “Saint Francis and the Sow

For most of my life, I’ve responded to emotional pain and conflict by urging myself forward. I’d aspire to work harder, raise the bar, not let myself off so easily, etc. – typical entrepreneur / personal development shit.

Setting boundaries – even when I really needed to – used to feel almost impossible. The idea that sometimes my needs were more important than people-pleasing felt kinda dangerous and selfish. As a result, I used to spend a lot of time in shame when I accidentally hurt, let down, annoyed, or upset someone.

In the last few years, I’ve been able to replace my tendency for self-loathing with something different. When I notice that I’m struggling or beating myself up, I use the pain as a cue to practice self-compassion.

I recently read Kristen Neff’s excellent book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Nice to Yourself” (Bookshop, Amazon). I started using one of her exercises and noticed the difference instantly. So I began teaching it to some of my patients. Many, like me, found that it’s helped them navigate shame, self-loathing and darkness. They said that it’s made it easier for them to find a bit of light when they need it.

The exercise is simple. When you notice that you’re beating yourself up or struggling with something, follow these three steps:

First, acknowledge that this is hard for you. That it sucks. So often when we’re dealing with something unpleasant, we push against it, blame ourselves, or escape to denial and distraction. That only makes things worse. Instead try slowing down and acknowledging that this is hard for you. That you’re in pain.

Many of us have a tendency to judge ourselves when we feel guilt, jealousy, anger, shame, pain, etc. over “stupid” or “trivial” things. This can create a pretty dark spiral. Instead of judging yourself for feeling bad, just try to accept that you feel bad. Even “small” feelings deserve compassion (and sometimes the small feelings are pretty big).  

Second, remind yourself that pain, suffering, strife, disappointment, loss, etc. is a universal part of the human experience. Pain has a nasty habit of becoming the center of our world. We don’t just lose connection to ourselves, we lose connection to everyone else too. Slowing down to remind yourself that everyone deals with this stuff helps expand your focus and sense of connection. Knowing that we all deal with this shit makes it a bit easier.

Finally, set the intention to be kind to yourself. For most of us, our natural response to pain and difficulty is to beat ourselves up. This is common, but not useful. It’s much better to be kind to ourselves. So we conclude the exercise by setting the intention, “May I be kind to myself.” Sometimes that intention flourishes into new action. Sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, it’s the intention that’s important here.

Neff suggests coming up with three phrases – in your own language – that encapsulate the steps above. This way when the pressure’s on, you have a clear and personalized three step process to practice self-compassion. I wrote mine on my white board. Clients have put sticky notes on their computer, written them on their mirrors, and created custom wallpapers for their phones.

To give you a sense of what the phrases look like, mine are:

1) “This is hard for me.”

2) “This too is part of the universal experience. Everyone deals with some version of this type of pain.”

3) “May I be kind to myself.”

So the exercise, in totality looks like this: you notice that you’re struggling. Maybe you’re feeling lonely, afraid, ashamed, anxious, or anything. It doesn’t matter if the cause of your feelings seems small or stupid, all that matters is that you’ve noticed the darkness. So you pause and acknowledge it. “This is difficult for me.” Next, you remind yourself that everyone deals with this stuff; it’s a normal part of life. “This too is part of the universal human experience.” Finally, you wish yourself well. “May I be kind to myself.”

That’s it. It takes 20 seconds. Maybe a minute if you go slowly. I’ll often put my hands gently over my heart, close my eyes, and take a deep breath to slow down as I go through the practice in my mind. Sometimes I’ll whisper the phrases to myself. Learning to treat yourself with compassion makes it easier to cut through pain and darkness. It creates the space to reconnect to your true self and bounce back from the bullshit of life.

Finding light in the darkness: 7 questions to help you navigate the difficult times ahead

It feels like ages since I’ve had my feet fully beneath me. Even when my personal and professional lives are steady, I can’t help but grieve for the world.

2020 has sucked for all of us. As we enter what will likely be a difficult winter as well as a polarizing and contested election in the US, I’m afraid that things are going to get worse before they get better (but remember: they will get better).

When you know that the path ahead is difficult, it’s important to slow down and reflect on how you’re going to approach it. Think of it as studying for a test or preparing for a big meeting.

In this article, I aim to help you develop a game plan for tough times. We’ll reflect on seven questions to help kindle light in darkness. Along the way I’ll share elements of my own plan. We’ll also spend time discussing a philosophy of dealing with pain that enables you to approach it with increased skill and care.

Five questions to help fight off the darkness (and my personal answers)

1) What 1-3 things have the biggest positive impact on your mental health? Missing from the popular conversation around mental health and personal development is the plain reality that some activities have a greater impact on our well-being than others.

This is tricky though, because the specifics vary from person to person and evolve over time. So we need to slow down and identify them now. For me, the three biggest factors are meditation, sleep, and exercise. A few years ago, I would have said therapy, diet, and exercise..

Other common actions that people report improving their mental health:

  • Gratitude
  • Prayer
  • Time outdoors
  • Journaling
  • Therapy
  • Time with loved ones (more on this in a moment)
  • A structured schedule for the day (even if it’s just structure you create for yourself)
  • A clean/organized environment
  • A regular sleep schedule
  • High quality relaxation (reading, games, baking, puzzles, watching movies, dancing, yoga, scrapbooking, woodwork, etc.)

The goal here isn’t to identify every variable that goes into having a good day. The goal is to find a few things that are disproportionately important.

2) Once you’ve identified the activities that are most important for you, how are you going to ensure that you do them regularly? There are times when it feels like taking good care of ourselves is especially difficult. One of the shittiest mind quirks is that these are often the times when we need to take better care of ourselves. It’s important to think about how we can tip the scales in our favor to make these things easier. Personally, I’ve made meditation, allowing room for 8 hours of sleep, and exercise a habit. However, to make it even easier I’ve begun doing the following:

  • I only allow myself to turn my phone on after I’ve meditated.
  • After I complete a workout, I text my buddy, M*. He texts me, too. Specifically, we send a GIF of Arnold Schwarzenegger back and forth after we’ve completed our workouts. It’s enough to hold us both accountable to our self-care routines.
  • I have an alarm scheduled on my computer and phone that goes off at 10pm, telling me it’s time to wind down.

Now is the time to figure out how you’re going to do the things that most serve you. Will you text a friend to help hold one another accountable? Will you schedule activities on your calendar? Will you create incentives for yourself to enhance your motivation? Will you inflict punishments if you fail to keep your commitments to yourself (I’m not wild about this strategy, but it works for some people). There’s no right or wrong answers here, but it is important to make sure that you’re not relying on will power alone.

Keep in mind that our goal is not to be perfect. It is to get it right most of the time. When you’re really struggling to motivate yourself, I urge you to aim for minimums. Instead of a full workout, a walk around the block. Instead of 20 minutes of meditation, 10 breaths.

3) How are you going to cut through the solitude? Real talk: isolation is terrible for mental health, and many of us have already experienced increased levels of isolation with more to come. As we think about this, there are two elements that we should be considering:

First, what are the things that tend to make us feel more isolated and how can we avoid them? Common things to consider limiting here:

  • The aftereffects of drugs and alcohol
  • Staying indoors for extended periods of time
  • Scrolling mindlessly on social media or junk internet
  • Pornography and meaningless sex
  • The people who act as vampires in our lives (more on setting boundaries with these types of people here)
  • Non-compliance with the supplements and medications that our doctors have prescribed
  • Spending too much time monitoring the news (which I’m super guilty of right now)

Next, we need to think proactively about how we can keep in touch with the people we love. A few of the more creative ideas I’ve seen:

  • Use Marco Polo to send video messages and have conversations.
  • Schedule a standing meeting with your people. For the past couple of years, my college buddies and I have had conference calls every other Wed. These are bright spots on all of our months, especially now.
  • Figure out how to play board games remotely. One of my friends has a standing “Settlers of Catan” night with his friends (I’m wicked jealous). They all own copies of the game and play together via zoom. Another group of friends has been organizing online bar trivia for themselves. 
  • If there is a skill or project you want to work on, find a few other people who are interested and work on them simultaneously.
  • Watch movies with friends and family, either together (check out Netflix Party), or throughout the week and discuss them once everyone’s caught up. While I was in grad school, I used to watch movies depicting mental illness and then discuss potential diagnoses and treatment plans with my parents. Nerdy, yes, but actually pretty fun.
  • Write letters to old friends – if you do this enough, they might start sending letters back!
  • Send a random gift to someone
  • Figure out how you can give back to people who are less fortunate than you. Giving back can provide a significant amount of meaning and connection. I’m not just talking about giving money. Someone close to me finds people having a tough time on reddit and then offers them encouragement and kind words.
  • If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet, and you have the available resources to care for it for years to come, now would be a great time to visit a shelter. And if you can’t afford a pet, signing up to volunteer at a shelter or becoming a dog walker is always a great move.
  • If you have friends who have taken a similar level of COVID precautions, I encourage you to figure out a way to spend time together in safe environments. This might include stuff that feels a bit kooky, like wearing masks while you’re inside, getting tested or quarantining before and after you meet up, driving long distances to meet halfway, or even wearing 8 layers of clothing to brave the cold.

My personal regiment here leans heavily on standing calls, Marco Polo, a book club, a meditation partner, and spending time in person with other people who take the same level of precautions that I do.   

4) How will you know when you need to reach out for help? Though some of us will get through the coming months without too much pain, I fear many will really struggle.

It makes a lot of sense to get ahead of that suffering. Begin by asking a simple question: How will I know when I need to reach out for help?

There are some obvious answers here. If:

  • You’re thinking of hurting yourself or taking your life
  • You’ve felt depressed for more than a week or two or your depression is affecting your life negatively
  • Your stress / anxiety is affecting your sleep, diet, performance at work, relationships, or ability to leave home
  • You’re trying to cut back on drugs and alcohol but can’t

In all of these cases, I urge you to reach out to someone, ideally a licensed professional or a crisis line.

But what about the more subtle pains that have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us? The goal with this is to ask for help before things get too bad.

I spend a few minutes checking in with myself on Fridays. I have a list of known triggers and behaviors that indicate my mental health is falling off track. I also have a list of solutions that work for me.

Many people are in the process of learning more about themselves and their mental health and can’t create the series of lists I just mentioned. That’s totally fine. In this case, I encourage you to reflect back on the question, “How will I know when I need to reach out to someone?”

If no answer immediately comes to mind, you might consider scheduling a reminder in your calendar that pops up once a week, asking, “Would the wisest and most loving version of myself encourage me to reach out for help right now?” or similarly, “If my best friend knew how I was really doing, would they want me to call someone?”

If the answers to these questions are yes, or even just a strong maybe, it’s time to consider reaching out. None of us should have to deal with more pain than is necessary.

5) Who am I going to reach out to when things get bad? So let’s say that things are getting bad and you need help. First, I respect your courage, and I’m really glad you’re getting the care you deserve.

Second, who are you going to call, text, or email?

No right or wrong answers here, it’s just good to think these things through before they come into play.

You could consider contacting a:

  • Specific friend
  • Family member
  • Mentor
  • Crisis line
  • Therapist
  • Support group
  • Employee Assistance Program
  • Humans Resource rep
  • Text line
  • Recovery group
  • Spiritual or religious leader

If you think you might want to work with a therapist or support group, and you don’t already have one, take a bit of time to think about how you’ll find one (a few ideas on finding a therapist here).

For me, this starts with my inner circle, and then if that doesn’t solve the problem, I’ll call my old therapist or one of my meditation teachers.

Part 2: The art of dealing with darkness

It’s valuable to think through the philosophy that guides how we deal with pain. Facing all of your pain head on without ever giving yourself a break tends to be harmful. However, failing to address your pain, and drowning in distraction, denial, substances, or drama also tends to be harmful.

What we really want to do is balance our efforts between intentionally addressing our pain and intentionally taking a break from it.

Two questions that are useful here:

1) What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now? Keep in mind that kind doesn’t always mean easy.

On some days, the answer to this question will be something like, “I need to fight through the laziness and get a solid workout in” or “I should really spend 10 minutes meditating.”

On other days the answer is more likely to be, “I need to veg out watching Billions for a few hours” or “I need a big ass piece of chocolate cake.”

2) Is the pain I’m experiencing productive or not? Some of our pain and suffering is truly productive. Working out at the gym or dieting kind of sucks in the moment, but it ripples through to meaningfully improve our lives. Same with thoughtfully having difficult conversations and reaching out to mental health professionals.

However, much of our pain and suffering only serves to create more pain and suffering. Will having that next drink really make your life better? Will revisiting that same fight do anything besides rip the wound back open?

In both instances, the alcohol and the drama serve their purpose: they offer distraction from some unpleasant reality. The problem is that in most cases, ignoring a shitty reality doesn’t make it go away. It’s far better to either address the real problem or mindfully step away from the pain than to layer problems on top of problems.  More on differentiating between productive and unproductive suffering here.

PS: A few thoughts on alcohol, weed, and other forms of self-medication

One of my friends recently told me that life has been really hard for him. He also told me that he’s been taking an edible every night to help cope.

I get why people turn to drugs and alcohol during dark times. I used to too. They’re available, relatively inexpensive, they help turn our minds off, and they take the pain away, at least for a bit.

If you’ve been turning to drugs or alcohol to get through the dark parts of life, I want you to ask yourself a simple question: since you’re already self-medicating, why not consider talking to a doctor and seeking prescribed medication to improve your mental health?   

For most of us, the honest answer to this question is: the shame associated with actually reaching out to my doctor is so significant, that I’d rather just keep drinking and smoking. And also, I’m afraid I might have a slightly bigger problem – either with substances or mental health – than I’m ready to admit.

Again, I get it. There’s been plenty of shit that I put off talking to my doctor or therapist about. But I wish I didn’t. Continuing to paint over you pain with drugs and alcohol will only lead to further – and greater – pain down the line. Scheduling an appointment with a doctor, therapist, or support group can be uncomfortable in the moment, but it eventually leads to meaningful freedom of pain.

Owning my mistakes: 6 ideas I’ve changed my mind about

Highschool, early 2000’s: P* and I are walking around the neighborhood for the umpteenth time. At one-point P* confessed that he changed his mind about one of his political stances. I criticized him for being hypocritical.

P* shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, maybe. But without hypocrisy we can’t really grow.”

***

It’s been nearly 2 decades since that conversation and I still think about it often. We tend to frown upon hypocrisy, but actually, I think it’s an important human tendency. If we want to grow we need to change our world view.

Along those lines, I want to revisit some of the stances I held in previous articles. There is a lot I got wrong. I believe in openness, honesty, reflection, and growth. With that in mind, I want to practice a skill that I believe is of critical importance, especially these days: admitting mistakes graciously.

In this article, I aim to update my old thinking and set the stage for better conversations about mental health and flourishing. Previous articles that may reflect outdated thinking now link to this post and contain a disclaimer that I no longer believe all of the initial arguments. In the future, I may delete or update those articles.

6 times I changed my mind

1) I’ve become a big believer in the importance of expertise, education, and credentialing. In the 2016 article, “Don’t trust me, trust you” I discussed the process of learning to trust yourself. I made some idiotic assumptions and suggestions. Specifically, I dismissed the importance of expertise and experience. I cited the lack of reproducibility in psychology and other fields as evidence of the ability to dismiss research.

There were a few things going on that led me to get this so horribly wrong.

First, this article was written before Donald Trump became President. Trump, more than anyone else in the world, demonstrates the risks associated with consciously ignoring experienced experts. Sadly, these risks weren’t as clear to me back then.

Second, at the time, I was still working as a speaker / coach despite having no credentials. I needed to dismiss the importance of expertise because candidly, I had none.

These days, I think about the issue of expertise with more nuance. If someone is working in a field that directly impacts other people’s well-being, I think expertise is critical. More than that I think it’s straight up wrong to skip over education, training, licensure, and supervision when working with people’s wellness.

Should we care if the people giving us advice on health and finance took the time to become true experts (which, again, generally entails some sort of formal education)? Oh hell yes. I also argued in the article “Why I’ve lost faith in Tony Robbins (and most life coaches)” that coaching could be an appropriate medium for dealing with anxiety, confidence issues, and self-love. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. All three of those issues are best dealt with alongside a licensed therapist. I mean, hiring a coach to help you address your anxiety makes about as much sense as hiring a coach to help you address your broken arm.

However, in fields not related to people’s overall wellness – fields like business, entertainment, fashion, art, travel, etc. – I think reputation, innovation, and consistency matters far more than traditional expertise or education.

Should I care if my marketing consultants, graphic designers, or web developers went to college or grad school? Probably not.

2) On a related note: I’m really glad I finished undergrad. In that same article on learning to trust yourself, I mentioned regretting that I didn’t drop out of college. At the time, this was true. I thought it would have been pretty badass to be a dropout who went on to advise some of the world’s most influential organizations. I actually still think that.

And I still think that higher education is overpriced, slow, overvalued, stifling, tedious, uninspired, and not for everyone. It’s just that I needed an undergraduate degree to get into grad school, and I’m really glad I went to grad school.

3) I think there are times when it’s important to put other people’s needs ahead of my own. In the 2017 article, “How to overcome the need to be a people-pleaser,” I argued that one should default to putting their needs above those of others. These days, I think about this exclusively in shades of grey. Always prioritizing yourself will lead to isolation and disconnection – at best. But never prioritizing yourself will also lead to isolation and disconnection. So discernment matters here.

It’s important to learn to identify and prioritize your needs, and in many instances this is a pretty good default (though not necessarily for parents, especially parents of small children). But it’s also important to be able to identify when you should prioritize other people’s needs at the expense of your own. This is a truly messy process and one that is much more art than science.

In many cases – certainly in my own – overcoming people pleasing will require some healing and intentional work.

4) If you’re struggling with self-love or self-worth, I urge you to see a therapist. In the article, “Loving yourself is really f***ing hard: here’s how to do it” I suggested that you might be able to work with a friend, mentor, coach, or “guide.” In fact, the article’s existence kind of implies that there might be a way to heal yourself without involving another person.

These days, the only recommendation I ever make for people dealing with self-worth issues is to work with a therapist.

5) Somewhat ironically, I now believe that learning to love yourself requires other people. Struggles with self-esteem aren’t exactly struggles with how you relate to yourself. They are artifacts of our complicated relationships with the people who helped us (or really, failed to help us) develop our self-esteem. Just as these problems tend to be birthed from unhealthy relationships, they tend to be solved in healthy relationships. 

Do I retract what I wrote in “Loving yourself is really f***ing hard”? Nope. I just want to add the importance of other people’s love and care as we develop love and care for ourselves.

6) I think that there are instances where avoiding a difficult conversation can be just as wise as having one. In 2016 I worked on leaning into hard conversations and I’ve written a lot about them since.

In 2017, a reader wrote to me saying that my work inspired her to contact her rapist and tell him that she forgave him. My heart stopped. While I hope she found the closure sheneeded, her note made me reflect on my objective with that article. I never intended to pressure anyone to contact someone who has brought severe harm upon them. Avoiding the risk of retraumatization is far more important than pursuing the (potentially improbable and undesirable) act of repairing things with someone you hoped to never see again.

While the extreme outliers like blatant abuse can be non-starters when it comes to hard conversations, I also think there are less severe instances where hard conversations might not be worth it. 

I’ve learned that some people just can’t give us what we want from them. For example, you may want to have a hard conversation with one of your parents about the damage their constant criticism caused. But if you sense that the person may not be open to admitting they did harm, or that they’re lacking the requisite self-awareness, it may not be worth bothering.

These days, before I go into a hard conversation, I ask: what is my real agenda? Is the other person capable of engaging? Is there a reasonable chance that this conversation will improve my life? What about the other person’s life?

Don’t get me wrong, I still initiate hard conversations more often than not. I also have them sooner than I used to. Still, every now and then I find myself tapping the breaks realizing that no good would come of it.

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Though uncomfortable to revisit, I’m glad to clear the air around how my thinking has changed. I’m also stunned by how much my view has evolved over the years.

Please know that it is my intention to be as honest, thoughtful, and helpful as I can be. It’s also inevitable that I’ll mess up along the way. For your time and attention, I am infinitely grateful. For the instances in which I’ve missed the mark, I ask your forgiveness. Please know that I remain committed to learning and revising as appropriate.

Learning to suffer productively

Buddhists philosophers begin their quest for a good life with a counter-intuitive observation. They notice, simply, that life kinda sucks.1 They then ask, “So if life sucks, WTF should we do about it?” 

Earlier this year I found an amazing answer.

Jack Kornfield, one of my meditation teachers, studied with the late Achaan Chah, a revered forest monk from Thailand. In “A Still Forest Pool,” Jack collects Achaan’s core teachings. One of Achaan’s lessons has been on my mind for months,
 

“There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering, you will surely continue to experience the first.”

It’s worth slowing down and reading that again. It offers one of the clearest paths to a better life that I’ve ever seen. The idea is so simple and so beautiful: since pain is inevitable, we might as well experience it productively.

  • Feeling pissed at your partner? You could wall yourself off and pretend everything’s ok, or you could talk about it.
  • Feeling depressed? You could spark a joint and drift away, or you could reach out to a friend.
  • Feeling worthless? You could gorge yourself on pizza and Netflix, or you could find a good therapist.

We can go on with examples profound (working to overcome addiction) and mundane (opting in to a kettlebell workout), but the idea remains the same: our goal is to feel the right type of pain.

The tricky part is that both paths have their appeal.

The walls, weed, and junk food are easier than their alternatives, at least in the moment. Sometimes they are the right choices too; there are days when I just don’t have the stamina to deal with life’s shit head on. 

But there’s a catch. Avoiding our problems tends to make us worse for wear. When we take this path, the disconnection, depression, and shame reappear far sooner than we expect. This is the type of suffering that leads to more suffering. It’s easier for a few hours, but it tends to perpetuate our problems.

But having a hard conversation, asking for comfort, and getting a therapist is hard. They require true vulnerability and effort. Yet, with time, these choices free us from pain, and often more quickly than expected. This is the type of suffering that leads to the end of suffering. Even though it’s harder in the beginning it almost always pays off.

There is no avoiding the bullshit and dissatisfaction of life (trust me, I’ve tried). The best we can do is learn to work with it skillfully. It helps to slow down and ask, “Am I just shifting my pain away from the moment and into the future? Or am I meaningfully working to end it?” In both cases we have to deal with the affliction. It’s just that in the latter case we eventually become free of it. 

What are the Five Best Moments of Your Life So Far?

Every few years I pause to ask myself, “What are the best five moments of my life?”

I love this question. It’s nice to revisit the bright spots, especially when there’s so much darkness in the world. The answers tend to be illuminating too. You might expect that the big moments are also the ones that make life worth living. But often, they’re not. At least not for me.

When I reflect on my favorite moments, I don’t get caught up in the professional milestones I worked on for years or the status symbols I coveted.

Instead, I notice the quieter moments. The time my brother and I were able to control the rain (don’t ask) or when he surprised me with tickets to see Borat. I think about a glass of champagne with M* on a perfect, late summer evening in grad school. Or the weekend in the Shenandoah mountains with my college friends. The time Cranium got way too out of hand with my parents. Or the night we stole (and then returned) the canoe and crashed a party on the other side of the lake. Stuff like that.

It strikes me that life’s relentless speed, stress, and ennui risks washing these experiences away, unnoticed and forgotten until I pause to pay attention. When you have a moment, it’s worth slowing down to ask yourself, “What were the five best moments of my life?” Spend some time with your journal searching for and revisiting them. I like to write them out in my journal. You might also ask, “Am I living my life in a way that creates the opportunity for more moments like these? If not, what are the small things I can do to make them more common?”

Mindfulness meditation class recordings (and sign up)

When the pandemic hit I began offering free live-online meditation classes every Monday night through July of 2020. 

You can find recordings of these classes and guided meditations below. 

Before you dive in, two quick warnings:

1) I am new to teaching. Though I’ve been meditating daily for well over a decade, I only started studying how to teach meditation last year. My training is overseen by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, and I have an excellent mentoring teacher…but I’m still learning!

As you listen to these recordings, there are times when it’s obvious I’m searching for the groove and experimenting with style. Think of it as the training wheels phase.

2) I am aware that the sound quality could be better. The plan was to start teaching meditation in September, but given all that’s going on in the world, I figured it would be best to start teaching now. That means that I didn’t have time to create a high quality audio setup before I started teaching (though this will change in the future). 

With those caveats aside, please enjoy. I’ll add to the archives as new recordings become available. If you’re looking for a place to start, the class and guided meditation on forgiveness seemed to strike a chord.

Mindfulness Meditation Class Archive

Calling my shot part 2: embracing the grey

In 2016 I wrote a post titled, “Calling my shot.” In it, I committed to valuing authenticity and service over vanity metrics and popularity. At the time I worked as a speaker.

Since then I closed several financially successful businesses (more here) and learned to tame my inner demons (see here and here). I went to grad school (more here) and enrolled in a two-year certification program to become a meditation teacher (check it out here).

Today I’m a registered psychotherapist and in the process of being certified to teach meditation. 

Earlier this year I wrote a post titled, “I’ve changed (and why I’m taking a few months off from writing).”

I was trying to untangle two core issues that hindered me as a writer:

  1. I’m not the guy I was when I started this blog. The darkness that inspired some of my most popular posts doesn’t grip me like it used to.
  2. While I was in school, I realized that writing about the human condition, mental health, and spirituality in a way that is valuable, true, and responsible is extremely difficult.

We don’t actually know that much about psychology. Though there are endless studies that appear to be statistically significant, their reproducibility rate is an abysmal 36% (Open Science Collaboration 2015).  

Further, what helps some people heal and flourish can be harmful or a waste of time for a different person in a similar situation.

While this isn’t a problem in a therapeutic setting where the therapist and client interact, it is a problem for writers.

Suddenly, I found myself stuck. I struggled to thread the needle of true, helpful, responsible, engaging, and worth your time.

Should I write from personal experience? Should I write based on what the latest studies say? Is it ok to write about things that seem to work even though they haven’t been heavily researched? How do I factor in the myriad research considerations (reproducibility rates, applicability across different intersections, controls for various researcher and publication biases, etc.)? What about the ancestral wisdom that clashes with materialist perspectives? What about the clinical stuff that counselors swear by, but researchers fail to validate? What about the stuff that has an amazing research base but just doesn’t seem to work in the real world (CBT, I’m looking at you…).

Everything felt so grey to me. I agonized over this problem for months, before landing on a simple solution: I’m going to embrace the grey.

I love writing about the intersection of psychology, inner game, spirituality, and philosophy even though they often fail to agree on first principles.

I love writing for the artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, executives, students, misfits and rascals who want to face their demons, live vividly flourishing lives, help others, and stare unflinchingly into the void while making an ill-timed joke. It’s an embarrassment of riches that y’all read my shit.

We’re living through an era that no longer values traditional credentialing or expertise. This is a dangerous and misguided trend. With that in mind, I aim to hold my work to a higher standard.

Moving forward, when it’s not obvious, I will explain what type of article you’re reading and where the evidence for its potential effectiveness comes from. Life experience? Clinical experience? Philosophy? Ancestral wisdom? Research? A mashup? When I lean heavily on the research, I’ll cite my sources. When making controversial claims about health, healing, and flourishing, I’ll engage a peer review process similar to those used in traditional journals.

My goal is to share what I’ve learned as a clinician, a meditation teacher, and a dude in a t-shirt while also doing my due diligence.

As before, I plan to place all of my chips on the following bet: I will do the best work I can, make it accessible and trust that worthwhile things will materialize.

References
Open Science Collaboration (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science 349:aac4716. doi: 10.1126/science.aac4716