Getting Away From All Or Nothing Thinking

Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought or said anything akin to the following:

My blog will never have thousands of followers, so why even keep it up?

This book I’m writing will never be a best seller, so why even try to publish it? (Insert creative outlet here – i.e. My art will never be displayed in a gallery so why bother; I’m never going to be a famous musician so I’m just wasting my time…)

Or on a smaller scale:

I’d like to try my hand at cooking/gardening/knitting/etc but I’ll never be as good as my mom/dad/best friend (insert family member/friend/whoever).

I just wanted this event/holiday/gathering to be perfect and it wasn’t. I’m such a failure.

If any of these sound familiar, you may dabble in all-or-nothing thinking. And in fairness, we probably all have this on some level. Rarely do people cheer because their football team almost won the game. If you’ve ever watched your team lose the super bowl on a game-ending field goal attempt that went wide and to the right, you know that it doesn’t matter how close they were to winning (go ahead and guess my football team now). But unless you’re kicking the potential game winner in the super bowl, rarely does something we aim for have to be categorized as either perfection or a devastating failure.

Often, though, this is where self-sabotage steps in. Many of our brains like to see things as all or nothing, good or bad, success or failure, perfection or devastation. Especially in the throes of depression, our brain is excellent at convincing us that if we can’t achieve our ultimate goal, there’s no sense in trying. Take, for instance, the book example above. In this all or nothing thinking, our brain refuses to see that there’s a whole range between “nobody ever sees this book I’ve drafted” and “I’m a best selling author”. It tells us that we’ll get rejected if we try to publish it. And if we do manage to get published, nobody will read it. And if they do, it’ll get panned – everyone will realize what a crap writer we are and that will be the end of our writing career. We’ll be a laughing stock. Because to our brain, there are only two options – complete success or complete failure. There’s nothing in between. When, in fact, there’s plenty in between:

  • I could self-publish our book (and in fact, I know people who have self-published the first, and it did so well a publisher signed on for their next).
  • The number of people who read my book could be somewhere in between zero and best-selling author status.
  • Some of those people could like the book, even if all of them don’t.
  • One person may give it one star while another gives it five.
  • I may sell a decent amount, even though we’re not a best seller
  • By getting my name “out there” with any type of publishing, I could make a connection I never foresaw, and that connection could help me in the future.

But for some of us, our good old friend fear steps in and gives us an ultimatum: This either has to be perfect, or it’s a failure. And especially when we’re battling depression or anxiety, when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable and hurt, when failure and rejection can do their worse, our brain tries to get us to avoid them at all costs. Thus, self-sabotage.

So what can we do if all-or-nothing thinking sabotages us? My suggestion is to break it down. Let’s look at our goals piece by piece, and that may help us to see where we can still succeed, even if it’s not the “all” of all or nothing. I do this with a series of questions, and it helps to get to the bottom of *why* we think this way.

  1. What do I want to achieve?  
  2. Why? This piece is critical to the process. List as many reasons as you have. Be honest. It’s completely cool to have a goal of, say,  “I could stand to make a little more money.” Not all of your goals have to be big dreamy creative goals. Paying the bills is key too. Or you may say “It makes me feel accomplished/good about myself.” Cool. You deserve that. It’s completely ok to have a you-centered goal (assuming it’s not depriving/hurting others big time).
  3. Is there any other way to accomplish these goals? Or, put another way, if this doesn’t go perfectly, are there ways you could supplement this, and reach that thing you want to achieve?
  4. If this doesn’t work as you planned, what can you still gain from it?
  5. If this particular situation doesn’t work out the way you planned, will this absolutely, without doubt, have to be the final end of this path for you? Note: I said the final end. As in, you can never, ever go down this path again in any way shape or form.
  6. If the answer above is “no” (hint: it’s almost always no), why not? Why/how might you be able to readjust and follow this path in the future?
  7. If this doesn’t work out as you hoped, could it lead to something else that does?

These questions, and the answers, help us to see what other possible paths or options might look like. And in doing so, we may come to see that it doesn’t, in fact, have to all go perfectly, exactly this one particular way. And in fact, we may realize that we don’t even know why we held on to some of these thoughts/beliefs/feelings so long, once we look more closely.

I once remember saying to my therapist that because I’d had one rough hour, that the day was ruined. She replied, “Why? You still have another 23 hours to make it a good day.” I try to come back to this now when I’m tempted to “go big or go home’. I would self-sabotage 23 hours of my day, based on the idea that it had to be perfect, instead of accept that one hour was not. I wouldn’t give myself credit for the other 23, no matter how good they were, despite the fact that clearly, they outnumbered the bad hour.  And it wasn’t until I started thinking of the bad hour as a chance to make the rest of the day better that my perspective changed. I still struggle with this sometimes, but it’s really helped to pull me away from that thought pattern. It’s the same with goals. It’s great if your goal or dream works out exactly as you hoped. But sometimes it doesn’t. And it helps to keep us moving forward if we plan for alternative options, if we try not to allow our accomplishment to be all or nothing. Because often, the fear that it won’t turn out perfectly stops us from going anywhere at all.

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The Endless To Do List

There are numerous forms of self-sabotage. In my last post, I spoke about one of the most frequently-used, procrastination. But sometimes, self-sabotage comes in forms that are less obvious. In fact, sometimes, these self-sabotage disguises itself as downright productivity.

If the below look familiar, you may be unintentionally self-sabotaging.

Your To-do list continually grows, and is never completed.

To clarify, I’m not talking about your “life” to do list. Obviously, there’s always something we “could” be doing, or always some goal we eventually want to reach. But if on a regular basis you find that your daily list is significantly longer than you could ever accomplish, you may be self-sabotaging.

Now, of course if your kid gets sick or your car breaks down, you’ll probably be moving particular items (doctors/mechanic appointments) to the top of the list, and it may well make the time to task ratio disproportionate. But if you regularly don’t finish the key, pre-planned items on your to-do list, that’s another story.

While lists are great, we – or at least I – often use them as a brain dump. Everything I could possibly think I might have to do goes on my list.  And this makes it super easy to “get a lot done”, without getting a lot done. For instance, say I’ve had a goal of being published on a particular site, I’ve decided to finally write an article to submit. Except that I’m super afraid it’ll be rejected. If the only only thing I got done all day is write that article, it would be a huge step towards my goal (I can’t control if it’s accepted, but I’ve done all I can). But, if I keep adding small things to my to-do list such as “text this friend”, “add xyz appointment to the calendar”, “order such and such on amazon”, I could end up checking off twenty items on my list, feel incredibly productive, and completely avoid writing that article. I’m sabotaging my own efforts to write that article, despite it’s publication being a big goal.  Afterall, my brain subconsciously reasons, if I never write it, I can’t submit it, and therefore, I can’t get rejected.

You’re Constantly “Too Busy”

It’ll please you to know I’m not going to go off on my “why I hate too busy” tangent here.  I understand that many of us are running around to make ends meat, especially those with families, who are accounting not only for their own time, but that of others.  But, similar to the constant to do list, if you are routinely having to reschedule or miss important appointments, if you’re frequently uttering phrases like, “I haven’t had five minutes to pee” (and literally mean it) or “I’m so busy I haven’t had a chance to eat today”, you may be self-sabotaging by over-committing. Why is this self-sabotage? Because if you have more appointments, meetings, etc than can fit on your calendar, unless none of them last more than a few minutes, it’s virtually impossible that you’re going to get them all done. If you can’t find ten  minutes in your day to pee or to grab a quick snack, you aren’t going to get through every calendar item. You’re setting yourself up for “failure”, and that is a form of self-sabotage.  It might not be intentional, but it’s still sabotaging your efforts.  It leads to constantly feeling rushed, never feeling finished, and that cycle is difficult to break. This can also seriously affect your health.

You’re always in the same stage of the process.

 For me, it’s often the planning/brainstorming/ideas stage. For some people, it might be the analysis stage or the final review before going “live”/public/etc stage. For others still, it might be the promotion/marketing stage (i.e. I may get all the way through self-publishing my book, but I’m so scared of getting all ½ star reviews that I never actually do enough promotion to let anyone it’s published).

The point is, we stall with all appearances of being detail oriented and productive.  And of course, some stages take a while. Obviously, I would like my novel to be edited carefully before I self-publish it, so I don’t want that process rushed. But let me tell you that for the last year, I’ve been in the “I’m thinking about getting it edited” stage. Let me also tell you that my dad is an editor. And yet it took me over a year to ask him if he’d help me edit it. Because once it’s edited, if I want to publish it, that means I have to move forward towards the publishing stage. Which then means it’ll be out there. Which means people may read it. Or they may not (feels like rejection). And if they do they may hate it (rejection). And I may feel like a total failure because supposedly writing is “my thing”, and yet people hate it. It’s less painful, in the short term at least, to keep thinking about getting it edited.

So if you find you’re spending three times as long on a particular stage of the process than truly seems necessary, and every time you think “OK maybe I should move forward” you find one more thing you need to quadruple check/brainstorm/analyze, review, you may be self-sabotaging.

So what can you do?

When it comes to to do lists….

  • Create a list of no more than three items that you really want to get done. As in, if you get no other tasks done today, you’ll be happy if you do these three.  Remember that all days don’t have to be “conquer the world days”. JIf you’re honest with yourself when doing this list, you’ll know what warrants “making the list” in your current situation, and when you’re adding just so you have something to cross off. Also, remember it’s three max. The more complicated/intense the tasks are, the fewer to include.
  • After you’ve created this main list, have your “B” list. Basically, if you have a bang up day, get your primary list done, and still have plenty of time to spare, start on these. They’re often items that don’t have a serious time stamp, but need to be done at some point – i.e. you may need to clean the tub this week, but you probably (hopefully) don’t urgently need to clean it today.
  • Next comes your parking lot list. If you’re not familiar with a parking lot, this is basically your brain dump.  In meetings, it’s often items that are off-topic, but you want to address later.  It’s similar for the to-do list. This is all those items that you eventually may want to get to, but they’re not necessarily related to the major tasks at hand. The parking lot list is great for those who, like me, get random ideas and thoughts out of nowhere. Something might pop in your head, and you don’t want to forget it, but you know it’ll veer you off course to address now.  Both your B list and your parking lot list can live somewhere that you can access if you need, but aren’t in plain sight and therefore aren’t as distracting.

For Your Calendar…

Give yourself twice as long for each appointment as you think you’ll need. Why? When was the last time your doctor was right on time? Or the last time your department meeting wasn’t at some point sidetracked and ran over the allotted time? If you schedule back to back to back meetings/appointments with little breathing room, it’s really easy to get “too busy” if there’s any hitch in the schedule at all. And if one of your appointments or to-do items involves an underlying fear, you could almost go to Vegas with the odds that it’s the one that you won’t have enough time for.

For Both: Set Boundaries….

Set boundaries for things that are really important to you as an overall human being. If it’s absolutely essential to your mental health that you meditate for thirty minutes a day, this item could be one of the three on your list every day. If your spiritual health relies on going to church/service each week, put that on the calendar and make it a non-negotiable (obviously these are barring emergencies/illness etc). If it’s important to you that your whole family sits down for dinner at the table every night, make it an appointment for yourself.

This might seem off topic, but often, we can self-sabotage by being so busy we don’t take care of ourselves. If we’re exhausted because we got two hours of sleep, we’ve eaten every meal in the car for the past week, we feel spiritually disconnected, we are not in a good place for moving towards our goals. And that’s where self-sabotage does its best work. Our fears often magnify when we’re exhausted or anxious or depressed or feeling disconnected from ourselves, and self-sabotage thrives on fear.

The Procrastination Cycle

In my last blog, I talked about self-sabotage, why we do it, named some of the most common methods of doing so. I also promised to dig a bit deeper into each of those methods throughout the week. As a self-saboteur, procrastination is one of my key tools. In fairness, it’s not an intentional tool. It’s a super convenient one, and I’d say that it’s probably one of the prime self-sabotage techniques for people in general, when it comes to avoiding our fears.

Why is procrastination so commonly used to self-sabotage?

1.  You can literally procrastinate by doing anything – scrolling social media, walking the dog, picking your nose, you name it.

2.   Most of the time (picking your nose perhaps notwithstanding, but who am I to judge), procrastination can seem convincingly justified. For instance, you may know that you have to start on that guest post you were asked to write, but wouldn’t it be so sweet if your spouse came home to a clean house and a special dinner? They’ve been working so hard, they deserve that, don’t they? And they may well deserve it. And you also have been working hard, and were finally asked to write a guest post and you deserve that too. But if you’re worried about your post not being good enough, getting negative feedback, repercussions of others reading it (i.e. if you’re talking about a personal topic like I do with mental health), it’s super easy to justify putting that off, especially when it’s to do something for someone else.

3.  It often helps us feel accomplished, even when we’ve avoided our main task. And sometimes, it really is getting things done. We manage to tick of smaller items, less scary items, all while skirting the one thing we really needed to do to reach our goal.

4.  Starting is often the hardest part. Think about a morning workout routine. I can say with full honesty that the toughest part of my morning workout is not the workout. It’s hearing the alarm, getting up in the dark, getting dressed, and getting set up for my workout/going outside for my run. Rarely do we jump out of bed at our alarm, eagerly get dressed, hurry to the gym/get outside for our run and then stand there and say “Nope, not doing it.” It’s that getting started. It’s that first initial push to move forward with the plan.  Especially because once we start, we’ve often forged some sort of internal commitment to ourselves to see it through. Which opens us up to things like failure, rejection, and all sorts of other things that make us feel vulnerable. But when we procrastinate, we don’t have to get to that stage.

5. It can be super tough to identify. Obviously, if you’ve chosen to pick your nose for hours instead of work on the guest post, it’s a bit more obvious. But if like me, you procrastinate with productive activities, maybe even activities related to the task at hand, it can be significantly more difficult to pinpoint. I, for example, am a procrastination brain-stormer/researcher/list maker (I’ll delve more into lists and self-sabotage later this week). I have more notebooks and documents and apps filled with varying versions of the same brainstorm for Spread Hope Project and advocacy work that I’ve lost count. I always tell myself I just need to think it through a little more, or make one more list of ideas, or read one more article about xyz to make sure I have all the possible ideas and information I need. When really what I need to do, after the umteenth list and brainstorm, is just get started. I’ve finally recognized this, because I have recognized that my strength is in the big vision and little details but the implementation (part where I get started) trips me up. But it’s taken me a long time to recognize that.  When your activities seem productive and goal-oriented, it’s a lot trickier to identify them as procrastination.

So what can we do about it?  

As a self-proclaimed procrastinator, I wish I had all the answers. But I do have some tricks that have helped me.

Identify the procrastination technique(s).

  • Record it old school. You can keep a bulleted list of what you’re accomplishing/doing. You could also use an old school planner, that breaks down the day in increments (usually by the hour). Traditionally, this is used for planning out your day, and you an use it that way. But you could also use it to write down how you spent your time throughout the hour. And don’t cheat either – if you spent 15 minutes scrolling through social media, include it. It doesn’t have to be exact, but if you notice that Facebook comes up in every hour (and your job doesn’t involve primarily social media), it can help indicate patterns.
  • Use a task  timer. I like the Task Timer app for iphone, but there are other (free) options I’m sure. This app uses the Pomodoro Technique, and allows you to assign different task categories. Each time you restart the timer, you can select the task category. Be honest about your tasks – if you plan to spend the next 25 minutes checking social or doing laundry or whatever it is, mark it as such. You can then go back and notice how much time you spent doing what.
  • If you’re primarily on the computer, look at the open tabs on your browsers. This often shows you what you were doing to distract yourself.
  • Have an accountability partner. This obviously takes someone who’s willing to participate, but it can be a big help. Set a frequency with with to regularly check in. This also means we’re more likely to keep track of what we’re accomplishing, which can help identify patterns. Often times, others are better at noticing our patterns than us.
  • Remove those things you think *may* be your procrastination culprits. Put your phone away. Log out of social media. Close all browser tabs/apps/etc except for the ones your specifically working in right now.  If cooking/doing laundry/etc is your distraction, close the door to those rooms or go in a room far away from the kitchen as make sense. If you start feeling “naked” without these outlets, you’ve probably hit on (at least some of) your procrastination techniques.

You’ve Identified the Techniques… Now What?

  • For starters, keep up with the bullet point above. Move away as many distractions as you can, if you know that they’re your procrastination techniques.
  • Schedule in time for your favorite procrastinations, and stick to it. If you use a timer or a planner, dedicate one or two of those time blocks to your favorite procrastination. This is especially helpful procrastination techniques that double as tasks that actually need to get done (eventually). If you do indeed need to do laundry, knowing that you’ve blocked that time to do it during the day can help that gnawing feeling of “What if I forget or get too busy, I better just go do it now…”.  Not all procrastination is intentional – sometimes we think “oh I’ll just pop a load of whites in the laundry before I get started on that blog post”, and two hours later we’ve washed and folded our entire wardrobe and organized every drawer by color.
  • Pare down your to do list to three items max. Fewer is better, but I get that we all have deadlines.The bigger ticket/scarier/more complicated the items are, the fewer you include. I’ll talk about this more in a dedicated post, but often procrastination comes from feeling overwhelmed – again, that whole “getting started” piece.
  • If you get stuck just do something, anything (related to the task). As I mentioned, fear often keeps us from getting started. It’ll tell us something like “You can’t write that article. You don’t even have a title. You can’t turn in an article without a title.” Our brains psyche us our and we’re frozen before we even get started. And the more this builds up in our head, the more that rides on this title, the more we tend to freeze. So if you have to, put in a placeholder. It can be “Insert title”. It can be a general topic of the article (Procrastination). If you get stuck on what to write in the article itself, just start write anything related that comes to mind. Go back and fix it later, but get something down.  I talk a lot about writing here, but this can be true for just about any task that we’re dreading.  We often procrastinate – and self-sabotage – when we put so much pressure on one decision (the title of the article), when really, if we just got started in some way, we’d figure it out as we went along.

I hope some of these help! In my next post, I’ll be talking about the Endless To Do List and procrastination.

Are You An Awesome Self-Sabotager Too?

Welcome to week three of the Spread Hope Project weekly themes. This week’s topic is one that I’m super excited to talk about: Self-Sabotage. Why, you might ask, am I super excited to talk about this topic? Because:

I am an awesome self-sabotager.

 

Self sabotage

(Grammar note: I realize the proper term may be “self-saboteur”, I like sabotager better). And by awesome, of course, I mean this is something I understand all too well, because, if I’m being totally honest (and why wouldn’t I be?) this is probably something that I do daily. In fact, it’s something many of us do regularly. Sometimes without even realizing it. The truth is, self-sabotage is way more common than you may think, and it often shows up in forms nobody expects – in fact, often, it shows up in forms that, on the surface, look quite positive and productive (more on this later).

Why do we self-sabotage? Well, we’re all unique people living unique lives, and so therefore I can’t speak for each and every one of us, but there’s one thread that tends to tie together a lot of self-sabotage efforts.  If you’ve been reading these weekly theme series, it’s one you might recognize from last week: fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of success (yep, this exists – if we’re successful, there’s pressure to continue to keep becoming more successful, and that’s freakin’ scary), fear of the unknown/uncertainty, imposter syndrome. I could go on and on. And underlying these fears may be feelings such as low self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it’s not uncommon. If we’re struggling with our self-confidence, it’s a lot easier to convince us (and for us to convince ourselves) that not only are we going to fail, but that the results of failing are going to be awful. For those of us who live with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, these feelings can be magnified further. And when these are magnified, so too may be the fears, and that can lead to even stronger self-sabotage.

Now let me stop for a moment to clarify something: the word sabotage sounds pretty awful. And when it’s done intentionally, maliciously, towards someone else, it is. If you intentionally sabotage someone’s relationship or big day or something like this, obviously that’s not OK. But when it comes to self-sabotage, I believe that often, it isn’t a conscious decision, and it’s certainly not intentionally malicious. Rather, I think we frequently do this as a form of self-protection, a sort of preservation of self. When you are struggling with depression and experiencing extremely low self-worth, for example, rejection or failure could be especially devastating, furthering the depression and feelings of worthlessness. So our brain, without our conscious input, says “Hey, that doesn’t sound good at all, so I’m going to do what I have to in order to not get rejected”. And one of the ways in which we can not get rejected, is to prevent ourselves from going after something fully in the first place. Thus, self-sabotage.

That said, just because it’s not a conscious decision to start with doesn’t mean we can’t bring consciousness to it. Which is to say that when we learn to recognize our patterns of self-sabotage, we can potentially spot when our brain starts veering that direction, and hopefully learn some ways to intervene.

 

how do you self-sabotage

 

As I said, I’m awesome at self-sabotage. Which isn’t awesome, but it does mean I’m pretty familiar with it. And while there are so many ways to self-sabotage, there are some methods that, from my observation and experience, seem to be particularly common.   I’ll be delving into some of these more thoroughly later in the week, but wanted to give an overview here.

  • Procrastination. This might be number one. Raise your hand if you, too, find just one more really interesting article to read or Facebook post you must comment on before starting that task that makes you nervous/concerned/etc. I’ll be delving into this a lot more later.
  • The endless to do list/always being too busy. If day after day, week after week, you’ve built up your schedule or to-do list to the point that there’s no humanly possible way you’re going to get through it all, you might want to take a closer look. If you’re one of those people who wears “too busy” like a badge of honor, please don’t hate me just yet. I’ll explain further when I do a deeper dive into this topic later this week.
  • All or nothing thinking. For those of you who, like me, struggle with gray areas, all or nothing thinking (“it’s not worth it unless I get this exact, specific result”) is a super easy way for our brain to freeze us where we stand, thus sabotaging our efforts to move forward.
  • Setting goals with unreasonable time frames, requirements, or that require all “outside influence” (i.e. where you have very little to no control). It’s OK to be optimistic and go outside your comfort zone. In fact, I encourage it. But have some smaller in between goals to build on too. If my only plan for paying off debt is winning the Powerball, I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment (aka sabotaging my efforts).
  • Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We’ve heard this before in slightly different context, right? Now, this doesn’t mean giving up after the first failure or rejection. Persistence is key in reaching goals.  But every disappointment, or at least most, provide a learning opportunity. If you learn/ change/tweak nothing, you’ll probably get the same result. Think Charlie Brown kicking the football here.
  • Not being true to ourselves. Have you ever tried to dedicate yourself to job or project or program that goes against everything that is you? I’m not just talking about “my job isn’t my dream career”, but something that really, authentically doesn’t feel like you. It might work for a while, but eventually, you burn out. Furthermore, resentment and bitterness often set in. It’s incredibly difficult to feel successful and fulfilled when you’re bored, burnt out, resentful, and bitter. Knowingly setting ourselves on this course, therefore, sabotages our efforts.

There are more, certainly. These are the ones that I see most commonly. I personally have done all of these at times in my life, and some are still tough habits to kick. Over the next week, I’ll be digging deeper into each of the above, offering ways to recognize them, and tools and tricks for dealing with them.

 

How Do You Work With Fear?

It’s natural, as we grow older, to have a bit more fear (at least, I feel it is). As a child, we  didn’t know all the ramifications – we could fall and get hurt if we did this or that, we could get emotionally hurt from xyz, we could be rejected or fail if we went after such and such goal. As we get older, and we learn more about how things work, how life happens, as we experience more struggles and challenges, there’s more to fear. As a toddler, you didn’t (hopefully) have to fear that if you went after your career dreams and failed, you may not be able to pay your rent or mortgage, or feed your family. Fewer responsibilities often meant fewer fears of what would go wrong.

As adults, we’ve been through a lot of life experiences, ups and downs, successes and failures, achievements and disappointments. We know what can go well, but we also know what can go not so well. And often times, especially when you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, it’s that “what can go wrong” that gets magnified. And often, that can lead to fear. Furthermore, because depression and anxiety often like to lie to us, clinging on to those fears and reiterating that we’ll fail or be rejected or some other concerning outcome, that fear begins to sound a lot more like fact to our brain. It slowly morphs from “but what if I fail” to simply, “I fail”. To clarify, I’m not blaming us for this. It’s our illness, doing what it does so well, grabbing hold of the most vulnerable pieces, and clamping down on them, and makes it feel impossible to see any other outcome. Furthermore, it often feels impossible that if this “worst case scenario” happens – we fail, we get rejected, we mess something up big time – that (at least in time) it’ll be OK. That maybe, in even trying and failing, we’ll move closer to where we want to be.

This is a challenge I’m actively working on with myself right now.  While I am not trampling over my fears thoroughly, I am learning a few tricks along the way that I thought I’d share.  Sometimes, in these situations, it helps me to approach things a bit backwards – look at all the awesome possibilities first, and then bring it back down slowly to “ground level”, so that maybe I can begin to work on the fear of other, less awesome, outcomes. In order to do this, I’ve been asking myself a few key questions.

So here goes a big first question. I’ll share some of my own responses to it, in case that helps you to record your own.

What would you do or be if fear wasn't holding you back_

What would you do/be/go for if fear was not holding you back?

To clarify, this isn’t a “perfect world” scenario. It’s simply, “if you are who you are, where you are, with all that is you, but without xyz fear(s) holding you back.”  As promised, here are a few of mine – they range from the mundane to the big, because we (or at least I) have all kinds of fears, and big or small, they can hold us back.

  • I’d submit writing to more sites/sources
  • I’d cook/bake/try more culinary stuff without worry that they’d be awful (told you some were smaller than others)
  • I’d try my hand at growing my own herbs and veggies (I make half-hearted attempts, but I know I’m afraid I’ll fail, and haven’t pushed myself).
  • I’d work on publishing my novel
  • I’d work for myself again – I’d dig in, and figure out what I had to do to make it happen, instead of hemming & hawing & “I don’t know”ing.
  • I’d expand my advocacy to things like videos, or maybe podcasts.
  • I’d reach out and try to get more involved in advocacy panels or speaking or something along those lines.
  • I’d reach out to friends more, and try to get consistent get-togethers planned (like “we play board games every Tuesday” or whatever). Yes, this is a fear thing. Friend rejection is a serious issue for me me.
  • I’d learn how to do more around the house – fix more stuff, etc. My husband is awesome at this, but I’d like to learn too.

As you can see, there are some big items, and some seemingly silly items. “If you weren’t afraid, you’d cook?” you might ask. Yes.  I’m so afraid I’ll mess it up, do it “wrong”, embarrass myself (I don’t even know what this means in relation to cooking but it’s a fear), set off the smoke detectors because I’m burning something, etc. And it may not seem like something that’s holding me back, but I hate feeling like I can’t do simple things, and it wreaks havoc on my self-confidence and self-esteem. So whatever your list entails, don’t cross it off because it seems silly or unimportant or like it can’t possibly be holding you back. If it came to your mind, it’s important. Plus, these “silly” fears play an important role in getting us “over the fear hump”, which I’ll discuss later on.

 

Question number two:

If your fears came true, what's the worst that's likely to happen_

If you try and your fear comes true, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen?

Two clarifications here:

1.) I’m not talking about fears of serious life events – like fear of losing a loved one, or of serious illness or injury.  Obviously, when it comes to serious impacts on our lives and health like this, we have to consider these serious possibilities. I’m talking about “What if I do try to cook that dish or to grow those plants or to make those plans with friends, and it doesn’t work out as I hope – i.e. I fail, mess up, get rejected.”

2.) Note that I say “is likely to happen”. Yes, there’s always technically the chance of the absolute worst case scenario. I could try to cook something and end up burning down my kitchen. That does happen. But the worst that’s likely to happen is I burn it, have to throw it out, and order pizza for dinner. And in the process, I’ve perhaps learned what not to do when cooking that particular item, so I have more knowledge for next time I try.

So, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen? Of course, the bigger ticket items are more risky. If I try to work for myself and it fails, then that’s a bigger problem than if I try to garden and it fails. But knowing these, even the more serious concerns, is a first step, because it helps us get a plan in place.

 

Question number three:

Are past failures or rejections actually what you think they are_

If you’re basing your fear on past experience, is the past failure/rejection/etc actually what you think it is?

Confused? Let me explain. Real life example: The first time I cooked for my now-husband (then boyfriend) in our house, I decided to make breakfast for dinner. I knew I could make omelettes so I felt pretty solid, despite my cooking fears. And I burnt them. Horribly. Like, smoke detectors going off and scaring the dog, horribly. We had to dump them and order pizza. My brain, in those moments, turned on me faster than a sworn enemy would: See you can’t even cook the most basic things! You’re incapable. How can you be almost 40 years old and not even be able to make eggs? How pathetic!  Except what I never considered, and my (now) husband then pointed out, is that it was the first time we’d used the oven in the new house, it was a very old electric oven (I was used to gas ovens), the coils weren’t even so it wasn’t cooking proportionally, and it looked like it hadn’t been used in probably months, if not longer, so the oven itself was metaphorically rusty. In short, maybe the issue was the oven, and not me (at least here – admittedly, with some cooking, it is me). So, are the failures/rejections, mess ups, etc actually that? Or could there be another reason they’re occurring. Note: Answer this honestly. This isn’t to push away all responsibility. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum. But it could be that your fear is based off a failing or rejection or mess up that actually… isn’t. This can help dissect that.

 

Question number four:

What small steps can you take to build up to your bigger fears_

What are some small steps that you can take to work up to your bigger fears?

Another real life example: I’ve been wanting to attempt publishing my novel since I finished writing it over a year and a half ago. But I’m afraid of rejection, that it’s not good enough, and all these other things. So, this past September, my dad came up with an option: He produces Wordgathering Journal (an online journal), and suggested publishing a draft of the first chapter in the journal. Despite the fact that it’s my dad, and I trust his judgement on what’s good enough to go into the journal, it was nerve wracking – this was the first time any fiction work of mine was being put out for public consumption. But the fact that it was one chapter, and my dad was publishing it, made it less scary. Now, I’m looking into eventually self-publishing the full thing. That one small step gave me confidence to go further. It also gave me the insight to look at other options for getting my work out there – it didn’t have to be “big publisher or bust”.

So look at your fears, and see how you can break them down. It probably won’t dissipate the fears all together, but they may break down into manageable fears, as mine did above.

 
And finally, a tip/thought:

Practice doesn't make perfect, but it helps.

This is where to address those seemingly “silly” fears first. It’s way easier to think, “Tonight, I’m going to try to cook a simple dinner” than it is to say “I’m going to go for it and try to get my novel published”. These smaller things, when we start to move with the fear (note: not past it, but with it, meaning, we’re not unafraid, but we’re not frozen with fear), can help us build up to those bigger ticket items.

The bottom line is, the more we practice (thoughtfully) doing things we’re afraid of, the less frightening it becomes. I say thoughtfully here because I’m not saying “throw all caution to the wind and hope it all works out OK!” But the point is, often, one of the most frightening things is the unknown: What will happen? What if this? What if that? What if, what if, what if… But the more we practice moving forward with our fear, the more we get used to it. That’s not to say that we should just all be used to rejection and failure. Those hurt, sometimes terribly, and if we were all completely ok with every rejection we ever got, that might be just as concerning, especially when it’s on a personal level (friends, relationships).  But the more we work with our fear, the more we understand that sometimes, rejection and failure and messing up happen, and that when they do, we can get through it. And sometimes, they don’t happen. And that’s even better.

 

What Are You Really Afraid Of?

This week’s topic is fear – a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. To clarify, not because I love fear. Not by any means. But because I have fear, or should I say fears, and plenty of them.  While I do deal with some more external fears, like claustrophobia, heights, flying (ironic, for a travel planner I know), and a particularly strange fear of getting locked in a bathroom (there’s actually history to this one), my biggest fears are internal:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of loss of control (of life, of my mind, of anything)
  • Of never being truly happy
  • Of never finding my path in life

So if you, too, battle these, know that you’re not alone. Often, fear of failure and rejection, and even fear of loss of control, can show up as behaviors such as self-sabotage (whole week’s focus coming up on this), procrastination, talking ourselves out of going for something we really want, giving up on our dreams and goals even if they’re attainable or in reach. And frequently, because of these, our fears become a “self-fulling prophecy” and form a vicious loop.  If you struggle with depression or anxiety, this loop is often even trickier. To clarify, I am NOT saying that these things are our faults, that we’re to blame for feeling depressed or for having low self-esteem or confidence or self-worth. I’m not saying that at all. Here’s what I’m saying:

Depression and anxiety make it difficult for us to fully trust ourselves. They lie to us, telling us that we’re worthless, hopeless, not good enough. They tell us we’ll never be successful, or catalogue a list a mile long of all the things that will go wrong, to the point that we may be overcome with anxiety. When you’re consistently being told you’re worthless and hopeless and not enough, that you’ll never succeed, that nobody cares about what you do, or whatever other lies our illnesses tell us, the results are often low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and low self-worth. Afterall, being told this enough, even by ourselves, has a lasting impact. And if you’ve ever been told this by others too, that only compounds it further (note, we’ll go into stigma and dealing with other people’s B.S. later in this topics series). Speaking from personal experience, convincing yourself that you’re going to succeed, that you don’t need to be afraid of failure or rejection or anything like this,  can be incredibly difficult when you’re really struggling with feelings of worthlessness.

This is something I’m working with actively at this moment, and it’s something that I think a lot of us experience, at least on some level. Over this week, I’m hoping to offer some thoughts to help maybe break down the fears a bit, to make them seem more manageable, and also offer some tools to try to work through them.

To start with, here are a few questions to think on:

1. What do you truly fear? This could take a little digging, but it helps to get to the bottom of the fear. A few tools that might help dig deeper here.

  •  Note that the true fear may be hiding behind another fear. For example, you may be saying, “I want to start my own business, but I’m afraid I’ll make less money, and I won’t be able to pay my bills.” And maybe money is where the fear ends – maybe you are making six figures now and your business plan you’ve created for your own business doesn’t account for that kind of salary. But often, it’s not this cut and dry and we have to dig deeper and ask ourselves, “Is a this really what I’m afraid of?”  Or to put it another way, in this example, “If you started your own business and you were successful, would you have less money and not be able to pay your bills?”  See if this assumption of success changes the inner dialogue. If so, the real fear not be simply be the salary to bills ratio, but that you’ll fail in your business venture. When examining your fears, look for what’s being left unspoken, and that might help you get to the heart of the issue. Often our fears are layered, and we need to address each aspect of them to fully work with them.
  • Also note that sometimes, fear disguises itself as anger. For instance, say you’re a writer and have a dream of getting published. And someone says to you, “You’ll never be published. You’re not all that good. Why don’t you go after a more realistic dream?” Sure, most people would get hurt. Because it’s a hurtful statement. But if you get really angry, and (internally or actually) start screaming at them, “How dare you say that. You’re an a$$hole! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You wouldn’t know good writing if it hit you in the face!”, make note. Make further note if you’re still mumbling to yourself about how wrong they are days or weeks later. It is true that it’s a pretty rude (and unless they’re your editor, probably unnecessary) thing to say. But often, we get most angry at something because deep down, there’s a tiny voice that says, “what if they’re right?” It doesn’t mean it’s a justified voice, but it’s often there all the same. People putting a voice to our deepest fears can make us feel exposed and vulnerable, and that’s often not a comfortable place to be.Often, to protect ourselves (think fight or flight), our body goes into anger mode, to mask feeling exposed. So take note of those moments. They can often be the most telling.

2. Do you feel this fear is holding you back? I ask this because it’s not always the case. Three reasons: First, some fear can healthy. It can keep us from situations that are actually potentially dangerous. Second: Fear can make us think things through more. For instance, if you think starting your business will result in a lower salary, you probably should address the “how will I pay the bills” question, even if it’s not your deepest rooted fear.  Third, some people use fear as a motivator. They are determined to get past their fear, and it fuels them to push themselves when they otherwise might stop. Sometimes, pushing past the fear in itself is a goal, and it can be a good one. But if this does not sound like you (I know it often doesn’t sound like me), here are some ways to figure out if fear is holding you back.

  • Do you notice you often get stuck at the same point in tasks/projects/activities?  I, for instance, am gung-ho in the idea and brainstorming stage. I am great at the planning, I make content calendars and marketing plans, I have business plans bulleted down to the tiniest detail. And then, when it’s time for implementation, I freeze. Or I make one small effort, and if it doesn’t seem to immediately return a positive result, I get discouraged and often back off. It’s easier to find reasons why it’s a bad idea or it won’t work or I’m too busy, or I just can’t do it right, now than to face potential failure.
  • Do you procrastinate consistently when it comes to certain tasks or goals (by which I mean tasks or goals that you want to do, at least in theory – not like taking out the trash or cleaning the toilet)? To clarify, procrastinating doesn’t have to be scrolling through Facebook for hours (though it can be). But if you find that every time you have to do xyz, you suddenly realize that you’ve been meaning to organize your sock drawer, or rearrange the kitchen pots and pans, or clean the tub again, note it. Or, if like me, you constantly think you’ll just make one more list or read one more applicable article just to make sure every tiny detail is perfect, instead of actually starting on the next steps, you may well be procrastinating. Procrastination can be sneaky, so look for it in non-obvious places – like working around every other item that could possibly ever be on your to-do list, instead of starting on the one task you said you were going to do today.
  • Do you deal with all or nothing thinking when it comes to your goals? For instance, for the writer above that wants to be published, if they say something like, “It’s not like it’s going to be a best-seller, so what’s the point?”, fear is probably holding them back. This falls under the “I’ll never succeed so why try” category.  When you deal with a mental illness, gray areas can be especially tricky. Speaking from personal experience, when I struggle to trust my own brain, it can often feel like I need “solid” thoughts to hold onto – something is good/bad, right/wrong, this way/that way, success/failure. And having that anchor can be really important, because there are times that the whole world can feel gray, fuzzy, wobbly. But it can also feed fears of failure or rejection, because we may see the only possible outcomes as success or failure, not a sliding scale. This is something I am especially working on right now, and there will be a whole theme on “gray areas” later on.

If you’re working on determining your fears, I hope these help. My next post will be on what we can do once we have determined what are fears are, and how (if) they’re holding us back.

And to close, a final reminder: fear is a natural part of life. It’s ok to feel afraid. I’d venture to say nobody lives without some fear – even if it’s a small, less-obvious fear that they may not even be aware of. Having fear is part of the human experience.  We don’t have to be fearless. We just need to work on identifying those fears, and how we can best work with them to move towards our goals and dreams.

 

It's perfectly OK to be afraid.

 

 

Happy November

Happy 75 degree first day of November from here in Philadelphia! This isn’t part of my weekly theme, but it’s the start of a new month, and the start of something new always feels like a good time to pause, reflect back, look forward, and acknowledge where we are in the moment. And this being (for us Americans) the month of giving thanks, it seems especially right to start it off on a bit of a happy/fun/thoughtful note. I thought I’d give myself some of my own prompts, and others are welcome to join in and use them if you’d like.

What awesome things happened this past month?

Actually a lot of awesome things happened this past month.

1. I taught my first tiny bit of yoga as part of my yoga teacher training – albeit it was a 10 minute opener to other trainees, but still, it feels awesome to have gotten through this.

2. I also had tons of exciting things happen in the advocacy world.

 

 

Big thanks to my friend Jason over at Ain’t No Shame In Chronic Pain, who nominated me as a Webewarrior and Breakthroughcrew member! Go check out his work/site! 

 

3.  I began talking to someone about self-publishing my novel (you can read a draft of the first chapter in the September issue of Wordgathering). I realize saying I “began talking to someone else about self-publishing” sounds like  a weird accomplishment. But the person I’m speaking with works at a self-publishing company, and just reaching out and saying “Hey, I’m thinking of self-publishing my novel” was a huge step. I’m now in the process of having it edited by someone other than myself (bonus, my dad’s an editor), and thinking about publishing details. It might seem weird that I blog about things like my depression and anxiety, and am nervous about anyone seeing my fiction writing, but I am. The thing is, nobody can (accurately) tell me that my thoughts about my own experience with my illness are wrong. Because they’re my thoughts and experiences, as they pertain to me. Regardless of what anyone else might think, I’m confident that I’m well-versed on my personal experience with my illness. But my fiction could get rotten tomatoes thrown at it (I know that’s a movie thing  but all the same), and I’d have no real ground on which to stand and defend myself. And that’s scary.

 

What are you looking forward to in November?

1. My husband and I are flying out to a family wedding in Minneapolis this weekend. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen these family members, and I’ve never been to Minneapolis. So I’m really looking forward to that. It’ll be a bit of a whirlwind trip, but a quick trip is better than none!

2. Thanksgiving! I love thanksgiving. Family and food and football watching… what’s not to love?

3. Random midday yoga classes. One advantage of your jobby job being in a government building is that you have off for days like election day (PSA: Vote!) and Veteran’s Day. These give me the opportunity to go to yoga at times like 9:30AM, when I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. These classes tend to be less full, and being the socially anxious introvert that I am, this is ideal for me.

4. I now consider it completely acceptable to begin all things Christmas. I’m a huge Christmas dork – it’s my absolute favorite time of year.  I fully believe any time after Halloween is completely appropriate to start celebrating the Christmas season. And I fully intend to.

 

Being the month of Thanksgiving (in the US), what are you grateful for? 

So much. My husband, my family, my dog, my spoonie community, the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world, my relative health (I know so many people going through SO much more than me), my home, the amazing people I’ve met throughout my life – even the ones that I’m not still in contact with, or don’t play a big part, because they’ve all helped me get to who I am right now.

 

Happy November!