Not sure what to do? Do nothing

Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.

When something is not working, when we feel lost, or when we don’t know what to be doing in the present moment, our mind nudges us into action. It could be seeking a solution, talking to someone about our stressors, or just distracting ourselves with a TV show or food. Through some mechanism over time, our mind has developed this strong belief that doing is always the solution. However, as we have experienced over and over again, action does not fix everything. Watching TV doesn’t always cure boredom, and venting doesn’t heal anger. If we’re lucky, we may achieve temporary relief, but the root of the problem remains – we always feel the need to control things, and as a result, we feel the need to always do something.

The Art of Non-Doing

Yesterday, when feeling a bit restless and in a rut, I wrote a journal entry/note on my phone:

I gave in today and tried to logically get myself out of the rut that I’m feeling regarding my monotonous day-to-day routine. I googled for ideas, I went on Reddit, I listened to talks, I tried reading, and quite honestly, none of it worked. Had I not stressed over this, I could have least enjoyed the past two hours. It wouldn’t change anything, but it may have been relaxing, and that might have helped.

I experienced a challenging emotion (restlessness), but no amount of doing was able to fix this. As a matter of fact, it may have made things worse because I felt tired and like I had lost valuable time on my day off, and I had nothing to show for it. When we feel unpleasant emotions, we feel the need to get rid of them. What we fail to recognize and admit to ourselves is that it is okay, and it is human, to experience negative emotions. Not every negative moment or feeling has to be a crisis.

We do not know how to sit with our feelings. The art of non-doing is recognizing that it is okay to not try to fix everything. It is okay to feel bad and let ourselves feel that way. Oddly enough, this acknowledgment in and of itself is empowering and a mood lifter. Does this mean give up or stop trying? Absolutely not! It means learning to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot control and being okay with what you cannot control.

Non-doing simply means letting go, letting things be the way that they are, and letting them unfold the way they are intended.

Practicing Non-Doing

“When we spend some time each day in non-doing, resting in awareness, observing the flow of the breath and the activity of our mind and body without getting caught up in that activity, we are cultivating calmness and mindfulness hand in hand”

~Jon Kabat-Zinn

Meditation, at its core, is an exercise of non-doing. However, it is not the only way to practice non-doing. I have found that non-doing is about absorbing what is happening in the present moment as it shifts into the next moment. It is also about making a conscious decision not to be pulled in several directions by our feelings, desires, or external pressure. Non-doing can also manifest through effortless action (i.e., things that induce a state of flow). This could be listening to music, going for a walk, or swimming. The key here is intentionality. Is movement enabling your ability to be aware and present, or is it just another thing you are doing?

More than anything, non-doing is something that results through the decisions we make in our day-to-day. When you’re bored, do you automatically grab your smartphone and scroll through social media, or do you sit with it and be okay being bored? When someone messages you from work in the evening, do you immediately respond or put it aside and respond during regular working hours?

Final words…

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy”

~ Guillaume Apollinaire

If there’s a takeaway I can give from this post, it is this – the next time you’re in a rut, or you feel stuck, rather than jumping into action, take a moment to pause. Take just two minutes. Take a handful of deep breathes, analyze what is happening around you, recite a mantra to ground you, and/or ask yourself this question – do I need to be doing something right now and will it fix how I am feeling?

Is our measure of success backwards?

When thinking about life on a broader scale, we know that no amount of fame, fortune, or material possessions will give us lasting joy. Furthermore, we know we will not take any of our accumulated wealth with us when we cease to exist. However, despite this knowledge, when we talk about success and successful individuals, our default is to talk about success in terms of fame, fortune, or career. We’ll glorify actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and the wealthy. Even when having a conversation among family or friends, we default to praising those in our circle with well-paying jobs, big homes, a post-graduate degree, or a Director+ level job title. We know of the horrors and challenges of the rat race, yet we continue to gush over it and fantasize about it.

Backward success begins in childhood and bleeds into adulthood

“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat”

~Lily Tomlin

A concern with this way of thinking is that it develops in childhood when children are pressured to be achievement-oriented. Kids are encouraged to be maximally involved in school – get good grades, be involved in sports, band, and other extracurricular activities. When a child achieves all they can achieve in school, the next achievement is getting into a good college, followed by a good graduate school, followed by a good-paying job, followed by an even better paying job, and so on. By the time we reach adolescence or adulthood, most of us have finally learned that these achievements and goals will not give us lasting joy. However, because we’ve been trained to think a certain way for so long, we cannot turn off this way of thinking. We do not know how to, and guidance is minimal. At some point, we go so deep into this lifestyle that we become stuck and just give-in. We cling to our wealth and our children’s achievements to preserve our joy, as minimal as it may be.

Success the right way

“You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy”

~ Garth Brooks

It is imperative that we begin to shift the focus of success to the right things in life, the things that matter. Have a well-paying career is a form of success but is it the right kind of success? What about the person who is simply a good parent, or the individual who can live life mindfully because they have control over their emotions, or the person who has achieved a high level of spiritual awareness?

Many people have attempted to move the needle on work by encouraging others to find a purposeful and meaningful career so that work no longer feels like work. This is sound advice for some, but it still promotes the rat race, just in a way that is more tolerable. Another option exists – live your life so that work is not at the center of it. The purpose of work is to enable you to create a life where you can focus on things that matter. However, many of us are disabled by work and neglect the things that matter to be successful. Unfortunately, along the way, we often find that while we get closer to success in our career, we become more and more separated from the success that matters.

Let’s shift the focus. Let’s recognize those who have achieved true success. Move away from the rat race.

5 Quotes for Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar states that there are five domains in our lives that contribute to happiness and well-being — spiritual, physical, relational, emotional, intellectual. Here are some quotes for some morning or evening inspiration:

Spiritual:

“Part of spiritual and emotional maturity is recognizing that it’s not like you’re going to try to fix yourself and become a different person. You remain the same person, but you become awakened”

~ Jack Kornfield

Physical:

“Doctors won’t make you healthy. Nutritionists won’t make you slim. Teachers won’t make you smart. Gurus won’t make you calm. Mentors won’t make you rich. Trainers won’t make you fit. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility. Save yourself”

~Naval Ravikant

Relational:

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words”

~ Roy T. Bennett

Emotional:

“Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”

~Aristotle

Intellectual:

“To know that you do not know is the best. To think you know when you do not is a disease. Recognizing this disease as a disease is to be free of it”

~ Lao Tzu

The Problem With Gratitude

Over the past few years, gratitude has become a popular topic in the positive psychology and self-help space. Many researchers and coaches talk about the benefits of gratitude and why we should set aside time each day to be grateful for the things in our lives. We’re told to be optimistic, say thank you to the important people in our lives, and keep gratitude journals.

These are all great ideas and great things, but the problem is that many people treat gratitude as an activity or something you do once in a while. You write three things you’re grateful for every night, or you send a thank you letter to an old friend. You participate in the activity, and that’s it. If we wish to unlock the benefits and power of gratitude, we need to think of it as a lifestyle, not as an exercise.

Temporary things will only give you temporary joy.

Have you noticed how most of the things that give us joy in life are all temporary? Whether it is a meal, a movie, or a vacation – it is temporary, and therefore, the pleasure it provides is momentary. Similar to how a good meal gives only temporary joy, gratitude as an activity will only have short-term benefits.

Gratitude as a lifestyle is about appreciating what you have at every moment.

As people, we have this odd tendency to always be looking to the future or looking back in the past. Think about vacations. When you’re planning a vacation, you’re getting joy out of what is to come. As you get closer and closer to that vacation, work, and even life become more and more agonizing, and it’s as if you cannot enjoy anything until you reach that vacation. You want time to pass so that you can be hiking in California or sitting on a beach in Hawaii. When the vacation is over, you struggle to enjoy the present moment. Instead, you reflect and get sad that you are not there anymore, so you now shift your attention to your next vacation or time off. Unfortunately, even when we’re on vacation or experiencing that thing that is supposed to give us joy, we’re still longing for more. You’re dreading that there are only two days left before you go back home, or you’re upset that the lousy weather derailed some of your plans.

In moments like this, when we are stuck in the rat race of life or in this rut of continually wanting more, it’s in these precise moments where you need to remind yourself to be grateful. Each moment is a gift. Acknowledge and accept that what you have now is enough. Getting more of something is only going to give you temporary joy, if that.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Our false sense of control inhibits our ability to be grateful.

Too often, we feel that we have more control over our lives than we do. To be clear, we do have some control over our lives, and I am a strong advocate of taking charge of the things we can control. However, the universe is just so complex, and there are an infinite number of things that we cannot control (COVID-19 is a perfect example). Despite this, we often still try to control things. We can’t seem to let go. This constant need to control is what results in always being hungry for more and being unable to enjoy the present moment. This is why we still feel like something is missing in even the happiest moments of our lives. We always think that things can be better, and we try to think of how we can control the situation and reach this ideal that doesn’t even exist. As a result, we completely take away the focus from just appreciating what we already have. If you let go of this false sense of control, you will more easily be able to enjoy what you do have.

Happiness doesn’t come from getting more, but from letting go.

Final words…

We need to shift from the mentality of gratitude being an activity to the mindset that gratitude is a way of living. When you find yourself struggling to be happy in the moment, it’s important to ask yourself, why am I feeling this way? What is this doing for me? Why am I looking for more? When you take a closer look at each moment in your life, you realize that you don’t need more. You have everything that you need and more. What a great feeling.

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

When faced with a situation that gives us anxiety, one of the most common responses is to do what we can to avoid or get out of that situation. For example, a socially anxious person might try to think of ways to get out of having to go to a party. A person who gets nervous around doctors may try to postpone their annual checkup. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. We see the source of anxiety as a threat, so we try to run away from it. Unfortunately, while we may gain short-term relief, the anxiety only remains dormant for a short period and becomes worse in the long-run.

The Cycle of Anxiety

The diagram below illustrates how avoidance leads to an endless cycle of anxiety.

The challenge with avoidance as a coping mechanism is that it often results in short-term anxiety relief, reinforcing the feeling that avoidance is a good way to reduce anxiety. However, as with just about any anxiety-inducing situation, it’s never a once in a lifetime situation. There will always be another social interaction waiting for us or another health issue that forces us to the doctor’s office. To make things worse, each time we engage in avoidance, the anxiety becomes a bigger hurdle to overcome.

The challenge then is that we are too anxious to engage in behaviors that will alleviate our anxiety, but our only other option, avoidance, increases anxiety. It is a vicious cycle.

With that, the question arises – what can we do?

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

The solution is simple, but unsurprisingly, it’s not easy. At the end of the day, the advice that any expert can give you boils down to one thing – you have to deal with the anxiety. You can’t avoid it. You have to approach it head-on. Often when we are anxious about something, we catastrophize and assume that the worst will happen. We might consciously even be aware that we are thinking irrationally, but it doesn’t reduce the anxiety or lessen the symptoms. What works is to face it. Challenge your negative assumptions and anxious thoughts.

That being said, you can approach this strategically to reduce the short-term stress (it won’t entirely go away, though):

  1. Challenge your irrational thoughts. Negative and irrational thoughts feed the cycle of anxiety. Try to identify the cognitive distortions that you are guilty of and challenge each assumption. For example, you might say to yourself, “I have never given a good presentation before. I have always been terrible with public speaking.” In this instance, I would write this negative thought on a piece of paper, identify the cognitive distortion associated with it (i.e., overgeneralization), and then write a statement that challenges this claim. In this case, I would try to identify a few instances where I did have success with public speaking or did give a good presentation.
  2. Start slow. If your social anxiety doesn’t allow you to speak with a cashier, the odds are that going to a large party full of strangers is not a good starting point. Instead, start with small things. When you order pizza, speak with someone on the phone rather than ordering online. Speak with a cashier rather than using self-checkout.
  3. Break down the anxiety-inducing situation into smaller and more manageable tasks. If you are avoiding going to the doctor, step one is just to book your appointment. You can always cancel, so there’s no harm in scheduling it and adding it to your calendar. Start with that.
  4. Rip it off like a band-aid. While some benefit from starting small and slow, others may benefit from the opposite – tackle the anxiety-inducing situation head-on. Get it over with. Don’t let your mind talk you out of it. Just do it. Now.
  5. Control what you can control to increase the likelihood of success. In my childhood, I had some negative experiences going to the dentist. As a result, it’s always been a challenge to get myself to go. As an adult, though, I now have more control over my dental health and dentist. So the thing I did to help increase the likelihood of success was to thoroughly research a dentist with positive reviews. The odds are that they have good reviews for a reason. Nothing is a certainty, but I have increased the probability of having a positive experience.
  6. Use the energy from short-term successes to address other areas of your anxiety. If you tackle an anxiety-inducing situation, and it results in a positive outcome, use the temporary positive feelings to keep tackling your anxiety. For example, if you struggle with public speaking but just gave a presentation that you feel great about, try to book and immediately have your next speaking engagement. If you are afraid of doctors and dentists and just managed to overcome your fear by going to the doctor, book your dentist visit and go as soon as possible. Ride the high and positive feelings from one encounter to address another.

Final Words…

The reality is that if you struggle with anxiety, it will always be there to some degree. However, with the proper techniques, it can become dormant indefinitely, and that’s the goal. Healthy behaviors that reduce anxiety operate in the same way that muscles do. The more you exercise and the more you practice, the stronger the muscles become. Stop exercising, however, and they become weaker. Similarly, with anxiety, you need to keep engaging in non-avoidance based behaviors to keep the anxiety away. Stop practicing, and it can return.

Here’s how your thinking might be flawed…

As we all know, most of our thoughts and reactions are automatic. Think of all the times when you’re watching TV and your mind randomly drifts into that project you haven’t finished at work, or think of when you instantly get annoyed at that driver who isn’t moving when the traffic light turns green. The good thing about this process is that we don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of information our mind is processing. The bad thing, however, is that this process has some hiccups. According to David Burns’ book on mood therapy, there are ten cognitive distortions that many of us suffer from:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. This flawed type of thinking is when we see things as black and white. Either you succeeded or you failed, nothing in between. You’ve succeeded if you got a 4.0 GPA, but anything less and you’ve failed. All-or-nothing thinkers are perfectionists. The slightest mistake or flaw and they assume the worst of themselves or their performance. These thinkers are too hard on themselves (and possibly others as well). Their expectations are unrealistic, and as a result, they’re almost always going to fail to meet their expectations.
  2. Overgeneralization. This flawed type of thinking is when you treat a singular occurrence as a common occurrence. For example, you’re working on a project on your computer when the computer randomly restarts. You lost your work as you did not save it and say “This always happens to me! I’m always unlucky!” In actuality, this may have been the first time that it ever happened to you, or maybe it happened once before. It’s not an every day occurrence but you are treating it as if it is. When a friend doesn’t respond back to your text message, you might say “she never responds back” even though it was a rare occurrence for your friend to not respond to your message.
  3. Dwelling on the negative. This is when you identify a negative detail from a situation or occurrence and you dwell on it. For example, you have your performance review at work and get heavily praised, but are given one small piece of criticism. Rather than appreciating that you did so well, you dwell on that negative piece. As a result, you question how you messed up, or maybe you get annoyed at your supervisor because you felt that piece of criticism was unfair. Either way, you fail to put the situation into perspective because all you can focus on is the negative.
  4. Disqualifying the positive. This is when you take a positive situation and either fail to acknowledge that it’s positive or you disqualify it. For example, if someone gives you a compliment, rather than believing it, you might say “They’re just being nice” or “anyone could have done it.” If you do something well, you might say “I was just lucky.” This could be perceived as humility as well, however, what matters is the intent behind it. A humble person would say “I did well, but I acknowledge that there were other factors involved too and I was fortunate to be in the right situation at the right time” whereas someone who is disqualifying the positive would say “Anyone could have done it. I was just lucky.”
  5. Jumping to conclusions. This is when you make assumptions that are not justifiable by any type of facts or information. For example, if you’re talking with a friend who seems disengaged, you assume that you’re boring him, when in actuality he might just be stressed or tired and is finding it difficult to concentrate. Burns refers to this as a “mind reading” error. Another type of thinking error in the realm of jumping to conclusions is the “fortune teller error.” This is when you make an assumption by predicting something that is unrealistic. For example, if your left arm is hurting, you say to yourself that you must be having a heart attack even though you’ve had left arm pains before and it was never a heart attack.
  6. Magnification and minimization. You catastrophize small negative occurrences whereas you minimize positive occurrences. You make a small mistake at work and think that you’re going to get fired, or maybe you get into a small argument with your girlfriend and think she’ll never forgive you. Magnification and minimization is sometimes also called ‘unfavorable comparisons’ because this type of distorting thinking often happens when comparing yourself against others. For example, you might think “John’s so successful because he’s a lawyer (magnifying another’s strengths) whereas I’m not because I’m just an accountant (minimizing your own strengths).”
  7. Emotional Reasoning. This is when you think your emotions are the ultimate truth. This is when you say “I feel stupid, so I must be stupid” or “I feel guilty, so I must have done something bad.” You might think that you do not do this because the examples I have shown are a bit extreme, but ever think that you can’t solve a problem because you’re feeling overwhelmed? That’s an emotional reasoning flaw. “I feel overwhelmed so I must not be able to solve this problem.”
  8. Should/Must Statements. This can be either self-directed or other-directed. When it’s self-directed, you assume that you should or must do something and add pressure on yourself. You say “I must go to the gym” or “many people have it harder than I do so I should be happy and not sad.” Alternatively, when it is other-directed, you make assumptions as to how others should behave. You might say “He’s already overweight, he shouldn’t have eaten that brownie” or “she should’ve been here five minutes ago.” As you see here, you create somewhat of a faulty logic for yourself and others and operate under the assumption that you know what is right and how things should be done for yourself and/or others.
  9. Labeling. Burns states that labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization. It’s when a negative occurrence happens and you label yourself for it. It’s when you say you are a certain why because of something you did. You don’t get the job and say to yourself “I’m a failure.” The labels are generally oversimplified and just wrong.
  10. Personalization. What defines this distortion is guilt. This is when you blame yourself or conclude that a negative occurrence resulted because of you. Your child got detention because he yelled at this teacher and you think to yourself that it’s your fault because you are the parent. In this circumstance, you’re operating under the assumption that you control others and other situations. You can influence others, but you cannot control them.

Final words…

In all of these distortions, you’ll notice some overlap. For example, most of these distortions are a result of faulty assumptions, false logic, and based on no real evidence. Furthermore, most of these have a tendency to either (a) fixate on the negative or (b) negate/ignore the positive. What Burns and most psychologists don’t usually talk about is individuals who have a tendency to do the opposite. These individuals are those who generally are overconfident with possibly an overinflated ego and are those who (a) assume everything they do is positive or (b) everything others do is negative. Either way, cognitive distortions exist and we are all guilty of them.

Which ones are you guilty of?