“A friend of mine was learning how to swim, when he suddenly felt he was starting to drown. He began splashing wildly about when his instructor told him to stand up. Much to my friend’s relief and embarrassment, he discovered he was okay.”
Anxiety is based on primal fear, and primal fear is based on the idea of not having enough. Not having enough of your basic needs met and perishing before you reach a ripe age, not having not enough social support and being vulnerable, and the list could go on. The point is that when we are struggling with anxiety our mindset operates on the idea of scarcity. When we think from a place of scarcity, we are fearful, we are timid, we are excessively selfish, we are desperate and hurried in our decision making. The mind of the anxious person is irrational, like the story of my friend learning how to swim and pessimistic, picture yourself at noon in the middle of any desert during the summer months with less than a quarter of warm water left in your canteen.
The anxious person does not take any risk, because he operates from a place of what he might lose as opposed to what he might gain. This leads to a self fulfilling prophesy, where like the unfortunate hiker in the middle of the desert, the anxious person is careful about not exerting too much energy, least they might end up losing the little they have left.
By now the answer may have become obvious to you, to rid anxiety visualize yourself having enough of what you need. So once my friend learned that he was in the shallow end, he exercised more courage in his swimming lessons. So in essence, his level of safety was enough. Or you can also practice imaging yourself as a hiker with enough water to last you to the next well or tap.
How the mental practice of visualizing yourself easily getting your needs met, is not enough. This is because people who struggle with anxiety, have experienced anxiety for most of their lives. This means that for most of their lives, their brains have become wired to think in regards to scarcity. So they have become habituated to thinking in regards to timidity, desperation and primitive survival instincts. The good news is that our brains are malleable, meaning that it is never too late to learn new ways of thinking and doing.
There are cognitive behavioral strategies you can learn and implement which would make your practice of visual exercises fruitful. Here’s one, start small. Visualize yourself engaging in a small challenge, which you have passively dreaded due, to your perception of the risk to reward ratio, or your lack of confidence in yourself. Create a plan to follow through with this small challenge in which you create a narrative which consists of the best possible scenario and outcome for this challenge. Then when you are done engage in the challenge.
The mere process of your creating a plan for the challenge, rewires your brain to how you see the situation and increases your motivation to make you overcoming this challenge a reality. It is not uncommon for people to experience some emotional difficulty when practicing this exercise. These are usually due to past traumas. If you are experience difficulty completing this exercise due to difficult feelings you can’t get past, a therapist can help you process these difficult feelings and get you back on track.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a professional life coach.
It is not uncommon for people to go through a period of difficulty in their lives, in which they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings. They habitually ruminate about what could go wrong in their lives and what is currently going wrong in their lives, with no resolution in sight. A common symptom of this vicious cycle is poor sleep, this is because the brain remains active well into the night ruminating over anxious thoughts, preventing the anxious person from getting a good night’s sleep.
In this post I shall detail a three step process on how to bring an end to your anxious thoughts.
The first step is to write down your anxious thoughts on a piece of paper. This might be problematic since if you have multiple anxious thoughts competing for space in your mind. The solution to this is to start with one thought, usually the most pressing one. By writing down the anxious thoughts on paper, it helps you to put things into proper perspective, and removes the factor of becoming easily overwhelmed.
Now that you have your most pressing anxious thoughts on paper, write down the most realistic worst case scenarios for that anxious thought. It is best to limit your worst case scenarios to three. So take for example, in your place of work, your supervisor just announced that the company will be downsizing, and to make matters more worrisome a few of your coworkers have already been laid off. Your primary anxiety maybe your fear of losing your job. While your worst case scenario may by that you will lose your ability to support yourself and perhaps a family. The problem with ruminating over your fear of losing your job along with your ability to support yourself is that it will negatively affect your ability to fall asleep at night. If you fall into a pattern of getting by on less sleep than you are used to, your cognitive abilities and your body’s ability to produce energy will become impaired. Which may lead to your worst fears coming true due to reduced performance on your job.
The second step is to accept this problem as a part of your reality. Fundamentally this is the most challenging step in the process, as most people have hidden beliefs which dictate that they either “should not” suffer or are “above” suffering. One method of coming to place of acceptance with your situation is to write down on a piece of paper the following statement: “I accept this situation as is, this is my challenge and this is currently where I belong.”
Once you write this statement down, take ten slow breaths, breathing in through your nostrils and slowly exhaling through your mouth. Then pay attention to how you feel about the words you have just written down. If you find yourself still experiencing difficulty coming to a place of peace with these words, then you will probably benefit from working with a therapist to address what your core beliefs about challenges are.
If you find yourself feeling more peaceful with the primary thought which provoked feelings of anxiety for you, then you are ready to benefit from the next step.
Step three is about exploring solutions to your challenges. Notice the language has changed from anxious thoughts to challenges. This change will be seamless in your mind once you come to a place of acceptance about your worrisome thoughts. Now that you have written down your thought along with your worst fears and you have come to accept this as a proper part of your reality, exploring potential solutions is something that occurs spontaneously in your mind. In my professional experience, clients who come to a genuine place of acceptance with the challenges they experience will often come up with reasonable solutions on their own.
For example, reasonable solutions for the possibility of being laid off, is to review your spending habits, cut back on frivolous expenses, while beginning the process of exploring other job opportunities. It is amazing how clear our thinking becomes when we transition from a place of anxiety to a place of genuine calmness. Also, even if you are having a difficult time coming up with some solutions to what you are going through, it is important to remember that there exist people who have experienced the same types of challenges you have experienced before and subsequently found effective solutions to these challenges.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
I once worked with a client who came into work one day and found himself out of a job. The reason? Two co workers he did not get along with, had fabricated a story about him to their office manager and on a knee jerk, the office manager cleaned out his desk, and had my client greeted by security the following morning.
He was confused about the incident for some time until he received a letter of termination in the mail explaining why he had been terminated. It was only after he hired a lawyer to take his company to task that he was rehired along with an apology letter. What brought my client into my office where his mixed feelings about returning to work, especially since the co workers who had made the false allegations about him where still working for the company.
I began by asking him why he was returning to work for the company, a question he could not answer. I then asked him why he would return to an environment where he was obviously poorly regarded. Obviously poorly regarded because if management was willing to fire him over the words of two people, why would they keep those two persons on staff, after it was discovered that they deliberately given false information?
My client then shot back at me about the need to forgive others and move on with one’s life. No doubt this was an auto pilot response, ingrained into his psyche and reinforced throughout his life. Which led to me have a conversation with my client about the true meaning of forgiveness.
Most people believe that forgiveness is about giving someone who has wronged you in some way shape or form, a “free pass”. Nothing could be further from the truth, forgiveness is about not taking things personal. For example, if I get stung by a bee, it would be silly of me to hold grudges against bees, after all the bee was simply following it’s biological directive in response to a stimulus. My choice to not hold a grudge against bees or the specific hive from which the bee came from, doesn’t mean that I am going to take passive stance towards bees, the next time I come into contact with one again. For example, I would educate myself on how to conduct myself around bees in the future and if I found a nest in my home, I would hire a bee expert to come and remove the nest.
In regards to my fellow human beings, when I encounter people who in some way shape or form visit wrong doing unto me, without provocation, to the best extent possibly, I hold them to account for their actions and terminate any personal relationships I have with them.
Most people will claim to forgive if they believe themselves helpless in being able to hold the person to account for their actions or terminate the relationship for their peace of mind. In the case of my client, he felt tethered to the job, because he was not confident in his ability to find employment elsewhere. While he also felt betrayed by his employers and deeply resentful towards his co workers who lied about him. He desperately wanted to be at a place of peace with the incident, but he was torn inside with his refusal to be honest with himself. Instead of admitting his fear of being unemployed, he tried to convince himself that he should forgive his coworkers, which led him to my office.
Regardless of the types of conflicts we experience, it all comes down to ourselves. How willing are we to be honest with ourselves? How willing are we to engage consistently in the difficult task of practicing self discipline? How willing are we to take adopt to changes in our environment, take on necessary risks and live fearlessly?
The more we live up towards becoming the best version of ourselves, the easier it becomes to let go of grudges and resentments.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.
Fear of being criticized, fear of being humiliated, fear of being rejected, fear of violence being visited upon you. These are the common types of fear that some people find themselves being subjugated to, by their own minds, on daily basis.
The irony about living in fear is that whatever it is that you fear, will most likely happen if you do not put yourself in a position to accept and deal with it. It takes more energy hiding from people and situations which evoke fear in you, when compared to the amount of energy it takes for you to invest in preparation strategies for embracing your feelings of fear and tackling the problem at hand.
There are two cognitive processes for getting past your fear, the first is learning about the core reasons for your fear, while the second is changing your beliefs about your feelings.
Firstly, with most people I have worked with in regards to getting past their issues of fear, it has always come down to their fear of suffering. We fear suffering far more than we fear dying, I guess this is why in Christian texts the talk of hell and the idea of being burned while experiencing never ending agony was captivating and frightening for myself and my peers as children. Regardless the belief that one shouldn’t suffer is an irrational belief. It is an irrational belief, because through suffering comes growth. The infant who is teething, is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being strong teeth. The toddler learning to walk is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being efficient mobility. The teenager struggling to learn algebra is going through a stage of suffering, with the end result being improved cognitive ability in calculating and solving math problems. Suffering is not to be avoided but embraced. I am not embracing nor encouraging any form of self punishment here, but rather I am endorsing and encouraging an attitude of courage.
Secondly, is the issue with feelings. Feelings make great servants but terrible masters. Some people who struggle with anxiety issues will often avoid discussing certain topics or tackling certain issues due to their fear of having to dealing with painful feelings. This behavior is based on the flawed belief that our feelings are to be tendered to. Our ability to feel is based on our need to compare our perception of the world as it exists in our heads to the world as it really is outside our heads. When our feelings are positive, it means that the world we perceive and the world as is are congruent. When our feelings are negative, it means that the world we perceive is incongruent with the world as it. Our negative feelings are an opportunity for us to reexamine our thoughts and core beliefs with the goal of correcting our perception to match reality as close as possible.
The process of practicing these cognitive processes are easier written than done, and in most cases require the assistance of a professional.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.
A young client relayed to me an experience with bullying. The bully accompanied by a few other peers with one of them armed with a cell phone camera, began poking fun at my client. At first my client tried to ignore him, but then he allowed his anger to get the best of him. This was when he lunged at his tormentor, the fight ended quickly with the bully being the victor. What made matters worse was that everyone who witnessed the incident stated that he (my client) started the fight, which was true.
By the time my client had been brought in by his parents to see me, he was knee deep in a state of helplessness. From his perspective, even when he was most angry he was still helpless in response to being bullied. Even in the adult world, I learn about adult versions of what my client went through. One person being on the receiving end of unfair treatment from others, and decides he is not going to take it anymore and lashes out. The result being a series of natural and logical consequences the person cannot manage.
You see, the real culprit is the belief that anger is somehow a motivator for overcoming unfair treatment from others or life challenges. I have read about this myth of anger in blogs, magazine articles and witnessed it being said in video logs. Anger does not inspire courage, anger is a natural occurring emotion that arises when we have come to believe that our humanity is being disregarded by someone or others. The process of using courage to stand up for one’s self actually comes the belief that you are confidence in practicing necessary acquired skills to stand up for yourself. Such a belief comes from the evidence of you practicing those acquired skills in similar situations.
So when the bully got the best of my client, it was because he was in better shape to do so. Or in the second example, where the person is unable to use his words to state his boundaries, it’s because he lacks the practice of having to assert himself in situations with high conflict.
Anger is a natural occurring emotion, that is most useful for infants and children. This is because all infants and children know are their needs and that their parents and guardians are responsible for getting those needs met. As the child matures, the parents teach him that he is responsible for getting his needs met and managing his emotions. This is where the traits of competency, confidence and courage from acquiring and practicing skills start to emerge.
In this video I discuss my professional opinion on the subject of anger and courage.
In the early two thousands, I worked for a residential treatment program. This program provided treatment services for youth offenders who had been convicted for various offenses through the juvenile courts. One day the program director, summoned me into his office, he was making me a job offer, specifically, he wanted me to take over the resident director’s job. I found two problems with this offer, this first was that the resident director was still in that position, the second was that it was not a therapeutic position. My primary issue with the offer, was that he had just had a heated disagreement with the resident director, in front of witnesses and his gesture in offering me the job was a power move. I knew that he would be offended if I did not accept the offer, and that he might see it as a political strategy of sorts on my part. Perhaps he would think I was aligning myself with the resident director against him. I simply did not want the job, because I enjoyed being a therapist and I also considered it immoral to accept a job position that was already filled. I did not want to walk around the facility engaging with the resident director, knowing that he was soon going to be fired and that I would take his place. I also did not want to lose my job.
So I took a deep breath, said a short prayer in my mind and politely declined the offer. To no surprise he gave me a look of surprise and annoyance. I happened to understand that if he could so easily throw the resident director under the bus, my acceptance or decline of the offer would not protect me from similar treatment.
This is my understanding of what courage is, understanding that there are no guarantees or shortcuts in life. Courage isn’t necessarily about sacrifice, this is because without realizing it, most human being put their lives on the line in certain everyday activities. Most notably would be driving. Courage is the recognition that challenges or struggles in our everyday lives are inevitable and that avoiding them or putting them off only makes these challenges more difficult to overcome in the long run.
Most of us have been led on to believe that if only we would submit to some type of lifestyle or entity that everything will end up being okay. From cultural beliefs, attending institutions of higher learning to being employed by certain employers. We surrender beliefs in our personal powers to buy into the illusion of an easier life, all the while failing to recognize the role we play in maintaining the illusion.
As a therapist, when working with clients who have difficulty in making what may seem as a risky or out of the ordinary courageous decision; I guide them through an exercise designed to help them recognize how much of their personal power goes into maintaining the current situation that they are currently unhappy with. It is after they have come to understand and accept this revelation that the conversation shifts into how they can use their personal power into creating the new type of life they desire and deserve.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
Why are disappointments so difficult to bear for some people? One reason could be because some people place all their stock for being happy in one basket. Specifically in regards to setting goals and expectations for the future. I often see this with people who struggle with mild depression, and procrastination. If you ask them what they want to accomplish, they are quick to inform you about their dreams, but some where along the way they lost motivation once the going got tough. When this phenomenon occurs it is because there seems to be an expectation that happiness can only be achieved once certain desires, goals and expectations are met. For clarification, my definition of happiness in this post refers to feelings of prolonged content and acceptance , versus joy which is shorter lived.
Where does happiness begin and where does it end? If you read or listen between the lines, sometimes when people are discussing something they want to accomplish, it appears that their beliefs about happiness stem from hidden statements such as, “I can only be happy if..” or “I can only be happy when..”
Ambitions, desires, goals and accomplishments are all part of the wonderful attributes of the human experience, specifically they bring a sense of meaning and purposefulness to the experience of life. However, what happens when your narrative changes? What happens when a goal you set out to achieve with all your heart is not realized due to circumstances beyond your control?
Postponing your happiness today based your hopes and dreams for tomorrow is a recipe for a case for acute and prolonged depression. I have worked with people who were so caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected change in their fortunate situation that they spent more years depressed compared to the years when they were thriving. What If you could begin experiencing happiness today, inspite of what your current circumstances are? What would that look like?
From my perspective what happiness today would look like would be living your life from a place of gratitude. Recognizing what you have going on for you and seeing any challenge in your life as an adventure and an exciting part of your journey. So even if you are confronted with disappointment from not having realized a goal, it would be easier for you to grieve and transition with your experiences into your pursuit of another goal.
So instead of the hidden statements such as, “I can only be happy if…” or “I can only be happy when…” replace them with “I can experience happiness regardless of my circumstances.” This type of thinking leads you towards regarding your goals and ambitions with a different attitude. An attitude that leads you towards focusing on the process, rather than the outcome.
So when the going gets tough, you can always draw energy from your feelings of consent and happiness, because you understand that challenges are a natural and occurring phenomenon in our lives.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.