It’s just not true that it is mandatory to be admired. Some people are not going to like you, and they don’t even need a good reason for it. And while it is natural and often sensible to prefer to be liked and admired, it is never mandatory. Your worth as a person is not based on the views others take of you.
Part Four in my series of the 12 most powerful ideas in psychology by Michael Miello, Ph.D.
Life requires you to accept that the world is an unfair and unjust place. Despite injustice, a poorly designed society, the existence of ill-informed people, and destructive movements, you can live well in the world.
The secret to doing so is to focus on your own choices and what you can control. You do not need total control of the world around you or the people in it, you just need a small sphere of influence—a zone around you in which you can act. This zone includes everything you can do, every life that you can affect, every resource or institution you can call on, every person you can ask for help, and every movement you can lend your strength to. One human being can do quite a bit of good. I know not everyone feels that way—injustice or unfair treatment may have reduced your sphere of influence from what it might have been, but you have a sphere of control none-the-less—even if that sphere is no bigger than a jail cell. And it’s within that sphere that you have to work to achieve your goals, to make your life better, to accomplish good, or to create what happiness you can.
So continually divide problems into what you can and cannot control. Here is a handy rule of thumb: If you can’t influence it, it’s not your problem to solve. Accept the state of everything that is outside your control and focus on what you can change.
The Fine Print:
Now, I am not saying that we should enable the world to be unjust, or to give up our efforts to make the world a better place. If there is something you can do to make the world a better place, then that is within your sphere of influence. So you don’t have to accept it, you can address it! But what I am saying is that you should not squander your energy on what is outside your influence.
Also, keep in mind that acceptance is not the same the advocating or endorsing. I accept that there is racism in the world and that for the time being, a world beyond racism is likely out of reach. But I don’t endorse it. I don’t support it. And if some little bit of it creeps into my circle of influence then it’s my job to confront it.
What this will help you avoid:
Helplessness and exhaustion. The demand that we must live in a world without injustice and where everything is fair will sap all of your energy. It’s also incredibly unrealistic. All of the 107,602,707,791people who have ever lived have had to endure living in an unfair and mostly unjust world. And for nearly all of those people, the world was savagely more unfair and unjust than our world. Despite the contemporary injustices we face, we live in a veritable golden age of peace, prosperity, and technology that would have made our ancestors weep in awe. And yet all of those humans that came before you found a way to live out their lives—and I’d wager that most of them were able to find some way to create at least a little bit of good within their sphere of influence.
But even if you disagree with my assertion that the world is fairer and just than ever before, that doesn’t change the crux of my argument. Even if it's not—and even it is is considerably more unfair for you than it is for most, you can still live well and use all of your ability to affect change to create good in the world.
What This Idea Will Help You Gain:
Tranquility. You can be at peace even in a world that is not. You do not need to live in existential dread. You can tend to the little patch of earth that is your Sphere of Influence. Care for what you find there. Foster growth. Connect with the people your sphere overlaps with. Make your tiny world a better place, and trust that all over the world, other people are doing the same.
This blog post draws heavily on REBT psychology (and the work of Albert Ellis) as well as ancient Stoic philosophy.
The Twelve Helpful Thinking Styles (So far):
Let me know what you think. Comment Here.
Idea Number Three: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience.
Resilience is your birthright. But resilience is not like a potion in a jar that you can run out of in the moment of need. Rather, our resilience flows from an endless source, greater than all the typical misfortunes that fill a lifetime. If it is called for, it will come, in equal measure to the task at hand. If you must know pain, grief, sorrow, fear, or anger, then you will find that it is within your ability to endure all that you must experience. These things come from the mind, and the mind will not create more sorrow than it can withstand.
But, if is this true, why then do we at times feel overwhelmed? We feel overwhelmed when we assume a situation is worse than it is—when we exaggerate its severity. The resilience we find is equal to the task at hand—the task as it really is—not to the catastrophe we are inventing in our mind. Resilience results from clear perception and a measured assessment of reality. Do not be too quick to declare your current challenge a crisis. If you call something a crisis, you will make it one. It is far more likely that the mishaps you face will be moderate in intensity. Label them as such.
Avoid declaring that you, “just can’t take this” because you can. Much of our anxiety results from believing that we are fragile things, on the verge of collapse (death, imminent mental breakdown, universal disdain, or spontaneous human combustion). None of these things are going to happen. Your psyche is simply not that fragile—unless of course, you convince yourself that it is.
The Fine Print:
Am I saying you will always be able to solve every problem? No. Surely not. We humans are limited in what we can do and change. Resilience is not omnipotence. Having resilience does not mean you will always have success, won’t be impoverished, or that your body will not eventually succumb to its mortality. But what I am saying is that disappointment, sadness, and anxiety are not going to destroy you. You may still be left in a very unfortunate situation—but if so your human spirit will not fail you.
Another important caveat is that your human resilience does not show up until it is needed. So if you’re imagining some future tragedy, don’t be surprised if you can’t fathom getting through it. You can’t cope with something that hasn’t happened yet. You might be able to come up with a contingency plan—but that is not the same thing as coping. Planning comes from your intellect. Resilience comes from a deeper place. So if you find yourself confronting the specter of something horrible that may or may not come to pass, remind yourself: “That is not reality. At this point, it is just a scary story. If that does happen I will deal with it just like I have dealt with many challenges in my life. But I don’t have to cope with something that hasn’t happened. I only need to know that if I need it, my resilience will be there.”
What this idea will help you avoid:
If you accept that you, as a human being, are resilient enough to face whatever befalls you, then you will avoid secondary anxiety—the most problematic of all forms of anxiety. Our natural (primary) anxiety is not truly a problem. It is just a part of life. The type of anxiety that cripples us is the anticipation of anxiety (the fear of future fear). That is why a belief in your own resilience is so important—it would effectively eliminate secondary anxiety. Yes, you may become anxious but if you already know that you will be able to withstand it—that you are stronger than your anxiety then the battle is already won.
What this idea will help you gain:
Determination. As we work towards our goals and strive to live according to our values, we will face setbacks and heartache. But knowing that when we do face these things we will be able to endure them allows us to take more risks and open ourselves up to new experiences.
Let me know what you think. Comment here.
Idea Number Two: You Can Tolerate Uncertainty
You do not need to have certainty or guarantees in order to live in the world. You can tolerate uncertainty. In fact you must tolerate uncertainty, because to avoid doing so is to shrink and wither. But the good news is that facing life’s challenges head-on is the surest way to live a life of more pleasure and less pain. Of course, for brief moments, you might be able to find relief by avoiding. But at what cost? Doing so just lets you live under the yoke of tomorrow’s fear and face the same painful decision again. Avoidance guarantees that, over time, you will miss out on a great many opportunities. It’s simply not possible to find success, love, happiness, or even peace of mind without subjecting yourself to uncertainties.
The Fine Print:
Now, I am not saying that you should take every risky option that comes your way. This is not an excuse for reckless behavior. Reckless behavior occurs when you can control the level of risk and you choose not to. That has nothing to do with tolerating uncertainty. Of course at times you will decide that certain risks are not worth taking because there is not enough potential benefit—that’s fine. But when you know what the right move is for yourself, make peace with whatever uncertainties come with it and commit to the path.
I am also not saying that you need to preserve the unknown. If it is within your power to reduce the uncertainty—to find the answers to your questions—then do it! It’s only when there is no practical way to reduce uncertainty that you need to tolerate it.
So allow the unknown to be there. Don’t hide from it. Don’t fill in the gaps with the worst possible outcomes, like drawing sea monsters at the edge of the map. It might be useful to consider worst-case scenarios, but that’s not the same thing as assuming that the worst will (certainly) happen. Don’t pretend you can see the future. Instead, humbly acknowledge that there are limits to what you can predict and control.
What this idea will help you avoid:
In a word, stagnation. Being intolerant of uncertainty will lead to you doing less and less—to being less and less. This is because anxiety spreads and avoidance once indulged becomes addictive. Why? Because when you give into your fear and avoid something that was important, your anxiety level drops (at least in the moment) and this feels good. But once the pattern of responding to anxiety with flight has taken hold, we will be tempted to avoid more and more situations. But it’s never too late to break this pattern. Remember there is no reason to avoid anxiety. It’s not pleasant but it has never and will never truly harm you. So avoid the avoidance and in time you will experience less anxiety overall.
What this idea will help you gain:
Confronting challenges will make you drastically more effective. It will allow you to become a member of the community of doers—people living according to their values and pursuing their goals. Tolerating uncertainty gives you freedom of movement. It puts you on the path that you want to follow. Tolerating uncertainty makes it possible for you to live the life you want to live.
Cognitive Therapists use a tool called the Unhelpful Thinking Styles to point out common flaws in human thinking—the kinds of errors that can lead to us feeling miserable. As a therapist, I’ve noticed that not everyone takes to learning these ideas. It is a bit like a physician studying gruesome diseases in order to understand health. I wonder if some people would get better use out of learning them as positive statements—as healthy beliefs rather than dysfunctional ones.
So is it possible to create a list of very powerful ideas that could could create positive effects in our lives? Could we identify ways of thinking that prevent negative emotions rather than offer relief from them after they have already occurred? I believe we can. By reversing some of of the unhelpful thinking styles, drawing on the work of Albert Ellis, and throwing in a dash of ancient philosophy I think we can derive a set of potent and positive ideas. I call these the Twelve Helpful Thinking Styles.
In subsequent blog posts I will be introducing all them. Today I will cover the first, an idea that pertains to our relationship with the vast and awesomely complex universe we find ourselves in.
1. The Principle of Curiosity
Be curious. Learn what you can of the world, but hold lightly to your truths, being ready to discard them if new evidence is found.
Be humble with regard to reality. Seek to understand the world as it really is, but avoid rigidity in your thinking. Avoid concluding that your understanding of anything is perfect, flawless or complete. There is always more to learn.
The world around us is awesome and complex. You could spend your whole life learning the intricacies of one small facet of one tiny corner of the globe. Wonder at this marvelous arrangement. How much better is this than living in a universe that was so easily understood there would be no cause for curiosity or investigation?
You do not need to understand every aspect of the world to live a good life within it. Our understanding of the world around us will always be limited, but that is not a bad thing. We can use what we know to improve our lives, but we don’t need to cling to any truth as dogma. As we find new, helpful information and improved ways of being, doing, and thinking, we can let the old ways go. All evaluations and generalizations should be seen as tentative hypotheses rather than solid facts. Be ready to make adjustments when new information is provided.
In some ways this first thinking style is the most important because without it, the ideas that follow will never take hold. After all, it is theold ways of thinking that have led to whatever problems you are facing now. Being a more effective, happier, less stressed person cannot occur without curiosity and flexible thinking. If you are locked into believing what you have always believed, you will also be locked into being what you have always been. Even in Cognitive Therapy, the client cannot progress unless they are willing to change the thoughts and beliefs that have been holding them back. Without a willingness to consider what it would be like to think a different way—without the spark of curiosity—we would all be stuck exactly where weare.
What this idea will help you avoid:
All humans are prone to engage in motivated reasoning—the tendency to start with a preconceived notion, ignore information that doesn’t go along with it, and manufacture (or cherry-pick) details that seem to support it. But we don’t only do this to defend our cherished beliefs, we also do it to justify the negative views we take of ourselves and others. The nasty little words we equate ourselves with, the rigid rules that hold us back, and stubborn assumptions we make about others—these are all a product of being unwilling to consider the possibility that we might just be wrong about a few things.
What this idea will help you gain:
Curiosity over time yields knowledge. Knowledge collected patiently and carefully applied yields wisdom. This is because flexible thinking will allow you to build an understanding of the world that will be closer to how it really is. You cannot effectively respond to the world without truly knowing it. This is what prevents us from navigating through our lives with an outdated and distorted map. Don’t confuse stubborn clinging to old views as any kind of strength. There is no weakness greater than fearing to know the world as it really is. There is no courage greater than being willing to know reality and embrace it in all its aspects.
Next time: Idea #2: Life is risky. Live anyway.
Let me know what you think. Commenting Available here.
Occasionally we need a little break from our routines. That's while from time to time I will be posting an installment called the ‘Daily Flourish’. These small tasks are designed to take about 10 or 15 minutes (certainly no longer than 30 minutes). These are not instructional. They are not going change your life. But they are like the emotional equivalent of the 7th inning stretch. I might suggest a meditative exercise, an activity, a gesture, or just to think about something. They'll be something that introjects a different experience into your day that hopefully will be a pleasant or at least useful addition to your routine. You could think of these as the behavioral equivalent of the intermezzo course—just a little variety. It’s my hope that they will be enjoyable, refreshing, and fun!
For today’s flourish, try to go out of your way to be kind to another person. What that means is up to you, but here are some suggestions.
- Call a person you haven’t been in touch with and see how they are.
- Offer to run an errand for someone.
- Offer to give your partner a neck-rub or massage.
- Leave someone you care about a small note telling them how you feel about them. Alternatively place the note so that they will find it unexpectedly sometime in the future.
- Offer to take a friend or co-worker to lunch.
- Leave an extra-generous tip for a server.
- Pay for the person in line behind you for coffee (or pay for the car behind you at a toll or put money into a vending machine for the next person).
- Buy flowers for your partner for no reason.
- Leave a encouraging note or a small cash gift inside a self-help book at a bookstore.
- Send a card to a hospitalized child through cardsforhospitalizedkids.com or to a random person in the world through www.postcrossing.com
As you do these things just notice how you feel. It’s not necessary to feel any particularly way after doing this. Just accept whatever feelings come. But if you do notice a positive feeling, try to savor it. The point is not necessarily to feel good, but to experiment with behaving in a way that is in line with the values of caring for others or believing in the principle of altruism.
Before you do this action, predict how rewarding this task on a scale of 1 (not rewarding at all) to 10 (extremely rewarding).
Rewarding (Prediction) ________(1-10)
After you have completed the action rate how rewarding it actually was.
Rewarding (Actual) ________(1-10)
I will regularly be posting Daily Flourishes on this blog and through my Twitter account (@DrMiello).
Nobody wants to waste their efforts, and let’s face it, therapy is a significant investment of time, energy and financial resources. So I decided to write a this short piece to help you get the most out of the investment you are making in counseling. As a psychologist, nothing is more satisfying than seeing my clients improve. Some of the ways that I have seen people change has been truly inspiring. Because I want all of my clients to be able to experience this type of change, I started thinking about the characteristics of my most successful clients. Why is it that some clients, even those with very significant problems, can improve quickly and dramatically while others make only modest gains over long periods? Are some people just able to change quickly while others are not?
As it turns out, the characteristics that give someone the potential to make the most of therapy are quite simple and can be used by anyone. My hope is that in sharing this information, my clients will be able to use it to get the maximum benefit from the time we spend together.
1. Make your appointments a priority.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a new skill—from riding a bike to getting in shape at the gym—you have probably seen that consistency is key. Frequently canceling and pushing back appointments will hinder and prevent progress in therapy. The clients that get better the fastest come to every appointment without exception. When I worked in Buffalo, NY, I had one client who walked for two hours after a snowstorm to come to his session. While that may seem extreme, his commitment to his treatment and working towards his own goals ultimately led to great success. When you make appointments a priority, we will be able to build much greater momentum towards change, and be able to accomplish goals faster.
2. Be willing to try new things.
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." –Henry Ford.
I like this quote and believe it has a lot to do with getting the most out of psychotherapy. Any time you learn a new skill, it feels strange at first. In therapy you are going to learn practices and techniques that might be unfamiliar at first, but with practice they can become second nature. What will make the difference is your willingness to at least try the skills. Try to approach these skills with a curiosity and an eagerness to try new things.
3. Therapy requires you to set your own goals.
Imagine if you went to your medical doctor’s office and when the doctor asked “so what brings you here today?” you just answered, “I don’t know.” It’s a pretty safe bet that you would leave the office without receiving the right treatment. The same is true for psychotherapy. Therapy without goals is like driving without a destination. Ideal clients come prepared to each session with an agenda that they would like to have addressed in that session. They also identify the changes they would like to make at the beginning of treatment.
4. Change happens outside of sessions.
The point of therapy is not to feel better for 45 minutes out of every week. You come to therapy to make changes that affect the rest of your life. But if you only focus on change for 45 minutes a week, change may not come at all. After all, a weekly session takes up less than 1% of your waking hours per week. For that reason, you should expect to think about and work on your therapy goals in-between sessions. Sometimes that might mean completing a worksheet or practicing a skill. Other times, it might just be taking some time to think about an important issue. I would go so far as to take notes on any improving or worsening of symptoms between sessions and bring these to your next session. It’s the completion of this “out-of-session practice” that can really make the difference.
5. Give direct and honest feedback.
It is important to give any therapist feedback about what is and what isn’t working. You should never feel afraid of hurting your therapist's feelings. Honest feedback allows a therapist to do their job better and allows their services to become more effective.
6. Finish Strong.
The length of time required for successful therapy varies based on the goals you set for yourself. But whatever the length of the treatment, it is important that treatment has a meaningful conclusion. Research has indicated that the way therapy is concluded affects how long the beneficial results last. As a result, it is important to have a conclusion to treatment where you and your therapist will review your progress and discuss your goals for the future.
Recently I’ve taken on an exciting project, writing my first self-help book. I titled it: The Invisible Toolbox: Coping Skills for Everyday Resilience. The idea for this book first came to me when I realized that in the first two to three sessions of working with clients, I often find that they are looking for practical techniques—“first aid” if you will. People come to therapy with the expectation that they should be able to feel better fast, and I don’t think that is such an unrealistic goal. Thankfully, there are a number of techniques that are quite helpful for reducing negative emotions and countering negative thoughts.
In fact, I have quite a bit of experience with teaching these techniques, which are often called coping skills. This is in part due to my work at the VA where I would meet with Veterans in the emergency room, often because they were having thoughts of suicide. As part of my role there I helped them create a Safety Plan. Together we would write down a list of what activities they could use, places they could go, and people they could call when things were getting bad (You can see a blank form for this kind of plan in the Resources section of this website). I found this process to be so powerful that when I was asked to provide an educational group for the Veterans staying on the substance abuse unit, I adapted the Safety Plan into a workbook. Each session, I would walk a different group of Veterans through the process of creating a Safety Plan.
Through this experience I had the opportunity to discuss with them what had worked in the past and what they were confident would work in the future. One of the most important parts of this work was discussing “warning signs” those factors that would tell you when you need to start using your Safety Plan. Thinking about your own behavior this way can be enlightening. What is it that you begin to do, feel, or think just before you get into trouble? Many times the participants in this group stopped me to tell me what a useful experience it was for them.
Now that I am in private practice, I have found that I still keep coming back to the same way of thinking about coping skills. So I dug out the old workbook I created and expanded it. Now it not only includes the instructions about how to make a personalize coping plan (what in the VA is called a Safety Plan) but also a comprehensive list of the most effective coping skills available—the ones that time and time again my clients have found to be effective.
I called it the Invisible Toolbox, because I want my clients to always have these skills by their side, ready to respond to what life throws at them. Learning these skills is a great foundation. Once you have coping skills at the ready, you no longer need fear the extremes of emotion or the storms of unwanted thoughts. Then you can confidently move on to do the real work of therapy—creating the kind of life you most want.
The Invisible Toolbox is coming soon to all of your favorite ebook retailers (Hard copies are also in the works). You can download your own free copy here.