You Are Normal

As a new year starts, we are surrounded by advice on “How to Make 20xx Your Best Year Ever!”, with renewed enthusiasm for being our “Best Selves!” and vowing to finally change assorted things about ourselves.

This is not going to be one of those posts.

The problem with this comes when we start with the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with us.

It bothers me to think of the number of people (myself included) who might get to the end of their short lives having always been slightly at war with themselves. Seems like a waste, don’t you think?

Don’t get me wrong – we are all flawed. Everyone does and thinks things that aren’t so awesome. And because we are all flawed, this means we are normal.

My firm belief, having never met you, is that there is nothing weird about you.

Every habit you have, every pattern of behaving, every thought and feeling you’ve ever had, every quirk of your physical body – many, many other people do those and have had those too throughout time. Everyone’s a little bit different and a LOT the same.

Sure, some habits, patterns, and thoughts are unhelpful. They make our lives more difficult, less pleasant, less full. But they are still normal.

Loneliness. Anxiety. Depression. Anger. Self-sabotage. Self-destructiveness. Self-isolation. Fear. Laziness. Giving yourself a hard time. Worrying what others think. Over-reacting. Having difficulty getting over someone, or something. All painful and unhelpful, but very, very normal.

I’ve talked in my post about The Second Arrow that when we have one of these totally normal experiences, we tend to make it worse by chastising ourselves with how weird or useless we are for having it or acting that way.

But no-one ever got out of one of these patterns by shaming themselves out of it.

The way to get out of it is self-compassion. What helps me is to notice it for what it is – a painful, normal part of being human. “Poor brain”, I often say to myself, “it’s hard being human sometimes.” It gives me a little space around the feeling or experience. It doesn’t entirely get rid of it, but that’s not the point. It just helps me see that what’s happening is “real but not true”, as Tsoknyi Rinpoche puts it. It gives me a chance and a choice to try and see or do things another way.

Of course, serious issues such as depression or anxiety that interfere with your functioning over a period of time need more attention. But even those are normal these days. The facts are now that most people will experience anxiety or depression at some point in their lifetime. If it’s your turn, I’m sorry you’re hurting. Know you are not alone and you are not abnormal or broken, millions before you and after you will experience the same thing. There’s no shame in letting people know what’s going on and getting help for what is such a normal issue.

If you do want to make this year different – to make the most of it, to learn and challenge yourself, to have the most fun possible, to make the most difference in the world – I hope this gives you a place to start. When your resolve slips, or an old habit creeps back in, or a pattern is triggered, have compassion for how incredibly normal and human you are.

And bonus points if you can extend this compassion to others…


Wrestling with the PIG (the Problem of Instant Gratification)

The PIG and I have daily struggles.

Whether it’s to eat that slice of cake, leave the dishes til tomorrow, or give up on learning a new skill when it gets difficult, the PIG is right there whispering in my ear how good it will feel. Right. Now.

There’s not a devil on my shoulder – there’s a PIG. The PIG’s only goal is to make this moment more pleasant. The PIG can’t stand boredom, frustration, and tolerating cravings, and has no interest in the future or consequences.

The PIG thus becomes a problem when it interferes with your larger goals. I have goals around eating healthy and continuous learning, and I really enjoy coming home to a tidy space. I also enjoy cake and Netflix, and dislike washing dishes and the feeling of frustration when learning a new skill or hobby is hard.

Where does the PIG get its almighty power??

Seeing the results of healthy eating takes time. The pleasure of a slice of cake is instant. This simple contrast gives the PIG its power. I think we’ve all experienced that overwhelming urge to eat or drink or do something – the mind almost fixates on it, conjuring up thoughts and memories of how good it tastes, how satisfying it will be. The mind also likes to tell us that it will soothe whatever feeling we might be trying to escape from – sadness, boredom, loneliness, frustration.

What is harder to remember is that the pleasure of a slice of cake is fleeting. The results of healthy eating (once they have been earned, over time) can be enjoyed all day, every day.

Why it’s important to learn to win against the PIG

The pull of instant gratification is hard to manage for many of us. Some people seem to have instilled in themselves an incredible ability to resist temptation, but I am not one of them. In the video below, I’m pretty sure I would have been one of the kids to eat the marshmallow:

Research based on the above experiment has shown that the children who were able to delay gratification went on to be more successful in life. It’s not surprising – education, career progression, a strong relationship, and good health all take persistence and the ability to turn down instant gains for a long term benefit.

Continuing to live on a tight budget to get a Masters degree, when all your friends start working and pulling in a fulltime income.

Walking away from that office flirtationship, and focusing your efforts on strengthening a long-term relationship that’s lost the initial excitement.

Getting off the comfy couch, turning off the Netflix marathon, and going to the gym.

So how do we win?

How do we silence the PIG if we’re one of those eat-the-marshmallow kids at heart?

Recently, I was staring down a piece of caramel slice. It was 2:30pm, my most vulnerable time of day for sweet cravings. I like to say I don’t have a sweet tooth – I have a mouthful of sweet teeth. And I love caramel slice.

Someone who knew I was trying to avoid sugar saw the internal battle I was having in my eyes. She said simply “Averil, it’s not worth it.”

BAM. The PIG reeled in horror, and went quiet. She was absolutely right.

I thought about the few minutes of pleasure I would get from eating the slice. I thought of the regret I would feel afterwards. I thought of my longer-term goals, and how this decision was either going to take me closer to them or further away.

It didn’t mean my craving immediately and completely subsided. But those thoughts of how instantly good it would taste were outweighed by the thoughts of the longer-term outcomes. It was true that what I want in the long run and how achieving those goals would feel far outstripped a brief sugar rush. It just wasn’t worth it.

The funny thing is, I haven’t been able to forget this. As long as I have the mindfulness to pause just for a moment before I give in to indulging the PIG, remembering “It’s not worth it” has the same effect every time. It’s annoyingly effective and I grudgingly walk away. It becomes about playing the long game – something that’s not been my strong suit, but something I’m determined to get better at.

Sometimes, it IS worth staying on the couch, or joining in on the celebrations. Those times, I feel good about my choices and can fully enjoy them without guilt or regret afterwards. They become part of my goals around self-care or relationships or just fully participating in experiences.

I don’t think I’ll ever be done wrestling with the PIG. But now I feel like I’ve got at least one good move that might help me win the next round.

Overcoming Your Fears

Fear is something I’ve written about before. It’s functional, keeping us alert to threat and safe from danger. It’s also one of the main drivers of our less than helpful behaviors. Left unchecked and when unwarranted, it can interfere with our ability to enjoy many aspects of life.

I have two main fears: Spiders, and heights.

I can manage small spiders, though I prefer for them not to touch me. I’m not sure of the exact size of spider at which my brain starts to freak out, but at some point, or perhaps when the body is of a certain thickness (just writing that makes me shudder), it turns into a full-blown phobia. I can’t even look at pictures of tarantulas.

If we want to change our relationship to whatever we fear, we have to be prepared to go through a pretty crappy process. Working on a fear involves exposure to the feared stimulus, which means inevitably that we will experience, at the least, a decent amount of discomfort.

I have absolutely zero motivation to address my fear of spiders. I know I could go through a systematic desensitization procedure to reduce or eliminate my fear of spiders, but I’m not willing. It doesn’t interfere with my life so significantly that the discomfort I will feel during the process seems worth it to me. If I had to deal with fat-bodied hairy spiders in my home or work every day, I might feel differently.

My fear of heights, however, impacts me more. When I went to China a few years ago, I signed up for one of the Great Wall tours that takes you along a section of the wall that has been less reconstructed than the main tourist part. This involved some incredibly steep sections, often with bricks crumbling away. As I know happens for others, my fear of heights or feeling of vertigo is also triggered by steepness, it gives me a strong sensation that I am going to fall backwards. So some parts of the walk were absolute torture for me, I could barely keep moving forward. What should have been an amazing experience and memory was tainted by periods of total terror.

More recently, my partner and I walked up Mt Karioi while on vacation in Raglan. Towards the top, my fear of heights was again set off, first by a steep section, and then by coming across two ladders just before the top. I felt sick with fear, mixed with complete frustration at myself. Rationally I knew I was safe, but my brain and body were pumping out stress hormones that froze me to the spot.

While I also don’t have to deal with great heights on a daily basis, this fear interferes with some of the activities and experiences I value the most – getting outdoors, appreciating nature’s beauty, sharing experiences with the people I love. This motivates me enough to want to put myself through the pain of exposing myself to heights to slowly desensitize to them.

So I climbed the ladders.

The view was incredible. And as difficult as it was, it was less difficult than it would have been to give in, say I couldn’t do it, and feel like the fear won out again.

This process of motivation and willingness to experience discomfort goes for any type of fear – fear of commitment, of intimacy, of rejection, of change. We can intellectualize and reason with ourselves or in therapy all we like, but we can’t just talk ourselves out of a fear. There is no way around, under, or over a fear, breaking down a fear means having to go through it.

It’s going to be uncomfortable. It has to be. What will make it worth it?


On Losing Compassion

Is there someone in your life that you’ve just lost compassion for?

You know the one. The person who is always stuck. Always the victim of some circumstance or another. And always, always refuses your attempts to help them find solutions.

Try as you might, and as much empathy and sympathy as you’ve felt for them in the past, you just don’t have it in you any more. You feel frustrated with them, and it’s showing. You have less patience for hearing the same problems over again. Or you’re outright avoiding them.

Probably, if you’re generally a compassionate person, this doesn’t feel good to you to be like this. You likely also care about this person and their happiness and wellbeing. But it’s driving you crazy!

What you secretly really want to say is, “I’m sorry that this terrible thing happened, but it’s time to move on!” Or, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, but the problem is actually you!” The hope being that they immediately see your point, agree with you, and get unstuck.

I’ve been there.

Losing compassion did not sit well with me. First off, I didn’t even realize I had lost compassion. I just found myself becoming more and more aggravated by this person. When it really built up one day when discussing the issue with someone else, I surprised myself with how irate I became.

It was enough to get my attention. That’s not like me, and I certainly don’t want it to be. Kindness is one of my core values, and I certainly wasn’t acting like it.

What causes us to lose compassion

That evening, the picture started becoming clearer. I’d felt this before, when working with difficult clients early in my career. I recognized that I had again lost my ability to acknowledge that it sucks to feel stuck, and powerless, and hopeless. While I can remember this with clients far more easily now, I had apparently forgotten that it applies to everyone. Refocusing on this simple fact brought back a lot of compassion.

The other thing I had to accept was that a large part of my frustration was coming from how I interpreted this person’s behavior as a reflection on me. With the difficult clients in the past, I had thought “If only I was a better therapist, they wouldn’t act like this.” Or they would improve, or be more respectful. I placed full blame for their behavior or lack of progress on myself, which made me feel ineffective, and in turn I found them to be a source of aggravation.

That same pattern was now being triggered by this person. In reality, if I accept full responsibility for my own behavior and reactions, they should be able to be however they are, without my feeling upset or frustrated by it. That part of the equation is my part, not theirs.

It’s funny how taking full responsibility is actually freeing.

How to get your compassion back

Consider the person that you’ve lost compassion for. The first step is to remind yourself gently that it sucks to be them right now.

Then ask yourself, what do I think their behavior says about me?

If I was a better friend/partner/parent/child, they would be feeling better by now?

If I could come up with better solutions, they would be unstuck by now?

If I knew exactly what to say, they would see things clearly?

Consider the evidence for that. Be honest with yourself – have you done your best by them? If not, that’s helpful information, and something you can act on.

But if you have, it’s time to free yourself from those expectations. In your next interactions with them, you can be kind, as well as releasing yourself from the need to fix them. This will tangibly shift your relationship. Sometimes endlessly trying to fix and provide solutions from someone is partly what is keeping them stuck.

In the same vein, you can also establish your boundaries – that you’re happy to support them in moving forward in any way you can, but you won’t continue to re-hash the same old problems. True, they may initially be upset about this, or perceive it as a withdrawal of support. But if you stay true to your word about helping them with anything to move forward, it’s up to them how they perceive it.

It might take several goes with these two practices before it feels easier to deal with this person empathically. But they, the relationship, and your sanity, will all benefit from choosing how you want to respond with compassion.


How to Outrun a Bad Mood

I had a crap day today.

When I got home, I could hear a Bad Mood settling in for the evening in my mind.

This was a problem, because a Bad Mood was going to be incompatible with my earlier intentions to exercise and be productive in the evenings.

Noticing it had gotten my attention, Bad Mood stretched out, yawned, and said “You know what we need to do? We need to blot everything out in front of the TV. Just switch off the brain and not think.”

“No”, I said, and went and put on my exercise pants.

“Hang on,” said Bad Mood, “The floor is dirty. You should vacuum first.”

(I got sucked into this one. I vacuumed.)

“There,” I said. “The floor is clean. Let’s go.” I put my exercise top on.

“Not so fast,” said Bad Mood. “You need to get the laundry off the line. Why don’t you just go for a run tomorrow? You can have today off. It was rough.”

“I can get the laundry down later. And if I don’t go, it’ll feel like even more of a crap day.”

“But by the time you go for a run, it’ll be too late to start cooking dinner. You’re hungry now.”

Bad Mood knows what gets me. I had to fight back. I played the I know better than this card.

“Listen, Bad Mood. I have to walk the talk here. I know every trick in the book for managing Bad Moods and motivation. I can’t listen to you and then preach about alternative thoughts and achieving your goals.”

“Lol,” said Bad Mood. “Eat some chips.”

So I also reminded myself that Bad Moods try and get you to do the exact thing they need to help them persist, which they pass off as something that will make you feel better. I used my favorite trick – you don’t have to want to, you just have to do it – and put on my shoes, and went for a run in the beautiful forest reserve at the end of my street.

I got some perspective, reminded myself what’s really important, and was able to get some insight into how my own thinking had contributed to my crap day. Most importantly, I worked out how to manage that thinking to improve tomorrow.

I managed to outrun my Bad Mood.

What does your Bad Mood say when it comes to visit? And what are you going to do next time when it does?


Three Metaphors for Accepting Your Difficult Thoughts

I wrote last month about the idea of “giving your thoughts no power“, which comes from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) technique of defusion. ACT is big on the use of metaphors to explain the techniques and concepts we can use to disengage with difficult thoughts, that if given too much attention and credence could otherwise run the show and dictate our behavior.

Remembering to use these techniques when we’re in the grip of anxiety, anger, or feeling like giving up is hard. It’s in these moments of high stress that we tend to fall into our default patterns of behavior. It’s certainly taken me a good while to become quicker and more fluent at using them, and I don’t succeed every time, but here’s what’s helped me:

  1. Mindfulness (of course!) – Mindfulness is that crucial first step in recognizing that you have or are about to fall into one of your usual ways of responding to a difficult situation or feeling. It allows you to hear the thoughts going through your head, and the space to choose a response, rather than just react.
  2. Practice outside of high-stress situations – like any new skill, practicing when you’re calm allows you the information to sink in. You wouldn’t try to learn the guitar on stage in front of lots of people! Get familiar and comfortable with how to defuse from your thoughts in quieter moments so that when the stress really kicks in, these strategies come more easily and fluently to your brain.

Below are a few videos illustrating three common ACT metaphors for defusion. They all show essentially the same thing – that whether we try to battle our thoughts or give in to them, we end up getting held hostage by them. To defuse from thoughts means to allow them to be there, while realizing that they actually pose no real threat of harm that should stop us from doing what’s important to us.

Have a look at the three (if you’re a bit impatient like me, you can play them on 1.25x speed!) Watch it once or twice again over the next few days to imprint it on your mind, so that you can call on it when needs be. Let me know which one is your favorite!

How to Deal with Difficult People, Trolls, and Haters

I once worked with a very difficult woman.

Every interaction with her terrified me. I dreaded the thought of having to ask her for something, or getting trapped in the lunch room with her.

She was the kind of person who got upset if you were making “too many” copies on the photocopier, even though IT’S FOR WORK.

She once let out an exasperated sigh and rolled her eyes at me for never having learned to drive a stick-shift (as if I’m not embarrassed enough about that).

After these awful interactions, I would find myself ruminating over it, recounting the tale to the nearest friendly colleague, and thinking of better comebacks than my usual slinking away with my tail between my legs.

I had to find a better way to deal with it. I knew there was no point talking to her about it – she’d had her whole lifetime to practice being this way, and I had no authority over her – why would she change it at my request? And because I know what I do, I realised all I had control over was my reaction to her. I knew it was entirely possible for her to be however she wanted to be and for it not to bother me.

So what to do to change my experience of her?

First, I checked my core beliefs.

Here was problem #1 – I was operating out of the belief “If I am nice, everyone should be nice to me too!” That “should” was setting me up for frustration and disappointment. I realized a more helpful and realistic belief to hold would be “I’d like it if everyone was nice to me, but sometimes they won’t be”.

Sometimes, our discomfort with difficult people or haters comes from a belief or need for everyone to like us. Even if we mutter and complain about them, subconsciously we’re wondering what we did wrong.

A more realistic belief is “Not everyone is going to like me, and that’s OK.” And remember, other people’s behavior is a reflection on them, not you.

Second, I looked for my empathy.

Whenever I find I’m getting fed up with someone’s behavior, usually I find that it’s a case of failing empathy. I put myself in this woman’s shoes – what must it be like to be so easily irritated? How stressful must all her days be if she gets annoyed by something as small as my photocopying? In all likelihood, she’s not a very happy person overall. Perhaps something difficult was going on in her life, or someone else was terrible to her in the past.

The same goes for online trolls. It’s cowardly to use the anonymity of the internet to give people a hard time, and there are plenty of cases where it has gone too far and pushed a vulnerable victim over the edge. Rightly, they should be reported for abuse to whatever platform they are using for their trolling. But in order to not let it affect us, we can consider that it must not be a happy person that is doing this. What kind of life is spreading hate and unkindness on the internet? Bullies were often the victim of bullying themselves.

Sure, just because something has happened to you doesn’t give you the right to be awful to other people. Plenty of people suffer without dragging others down with them. But not everyone has the wisdom or skill to do better. Let these people be where they are in their journey, and have empathy for them. Just mentally shake your head, and say to yourself “Must be very unhappy.” Compassion eases the frustration.

Finally, I was nice to her.

So with this empathy, and given that her difficult nature meant not that many people were overtly nice to her, I made sure that I was warm and genuine in our interactions. Most importantly, I did it without expectation of her returning the sentiment. I did it for myself, to know that I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t pleased with myself for spending time stewing over comebacks or complaining about her to others in the office. Being nice to her regardless of her behaviour fit with my values and who I wanted to be.

The upshot, of course, was that she started to be nice to me back. It’s harder to people to be mean to you when you ask about their grandchildren and share a little of yourself in return.

How can you use these strategies to get a little peace with the difficult people, trolls, and haters in your own life? Let me know in the comments!