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Releasing Stress and Tension through Meditation

Stress is Unavoidable

We all experience stress in our daily lives. When we think of stress, we likely think of something that we would rather avoid. But, not all stress has negative impacts or outcomes.

Hans Selye coined the term eustress to describe stressors that positively affect us. Anyone who has been ready to take on a new challenge, or tackle a big project, is experientially familiar with this term. This is equally true of anyone who has shuffled their schedule to accommodate a new relationship, or pushed their body a little further to achieve a new personal best. When we are experiencing eustress, we may stay up late to finish just one last thing, and still spring out of bed hours before the alarm, full of energy and brimming with excitement.

One of the key differences between eustress and distress is that with eustress we feel up to the challenge at hand. We see what is happening to us as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We believe we will succeed. It is likely that we have chosen, or are in control of, the stressor rather than feeling like it was thrust upon us.

Stress responses can result from external or internal stimuli. What type of stress we experience may depend more on our interpretation than on what is happening inside of or around us.

Although distress is experienced as negative, the effects are fleeting. When we’re stuck in traffic, we may feel very frustrated, but as soon as we’re moving again, our tension fades away. If we experience morning traffic every time we go to work, our response to it doesn’t necessarily have a cumulative effect, but it could.

If the causes of our stress are ongoing, or occur frequently enough, they become chronic stress. Even a source of stress that occurs only once can lead to chronic stress, if we are unable to process and release the resulting tension. When we hold onto emotional pressure, anxiety, or physical strain, the effects are more severe.

Among other things, experiencing chronic stress can compromise the immune system, and also increase the risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

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Noticing Tension & Strain

When do you become aware of stress? Does it have a tendency to sneak up on you? By the time you concede that there is an issue:

  • Are you are becoming frustrated easily and snapping at people you care about?
  • Do you feel completely overwhelmed and lack motivation?
  • Have you shut yourself off from the world and decided that from here on out it’s just you, Netflix, and a tub of ice cream?
  • Is your mind racing and refusing to focus?

Our body is typically reacting to stress long before we’re consciously aware of it. As we become more adept at observing ourselves, we cultivate our ability to identify the early signs of stress. Regular meditation increases our awareness of both physical sensations, and the ways that our mind and body interact.

“Regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can prevent,
and compensate for, the damage incurred by
frequent nervous reactions that
pulse through our hearts and bodies.”
Herbert Benson
The Relaxation Response

Experiencing stress results in muscle tension. Although the manifestation of stress in the body varies from person to person, some early indicators include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Biting nails
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Clenching fists or jaw
  • Decreased energy
  • Digestive issues
  • Grinding teeth
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension

Was There a Warning?

One of the main reasons stress sneaks up on us is that we spend the majority of our time focused on what’s happening around us. This external focus can cause us to, quite literally, lose touch with ourselves. Have you ever been so immersed in what you are doing that you:

  • realize you feel totally famished because it’s been so long since you’ve eaten anything
  • find yourself sprinting to the toilet because you forgot to “check in” with your bladder until it was an emergency situation
  • find your legs have gone completely numb while you were sitting in one position at your desk

“From early childhood onward, most of us get into bad habits
in the way we use our bodies.
These eventually include not only a bad diet,
excessive drinking, smoking and lack of exercise,
but also the way in which we hold ourselves,
the way we move, and the way we breathe.
Over the years, tensions creep up on us almost unnoticed.”
David Fontana, PhD
Learn to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Self-Discovery and Fulfillment

Restoring the Mind & Body Connection

Meditation and mindfulness encourage a more balanced focus. Through practice we become more aware of both what’s happening internally and externally. When we allow ourselves to be calm and still, we notice our thoughts, emotions, and also physical sensations.

Although any meditation technique might increase body awareness or relieve tension, there are a few techniques specifically designed for this purpose.

Observing Emotional Reactions

Recalling emotional reactions through this meditation technique allows you to become an observer of the various sensations which arise with your feelings. Knowing how your body responds to an emotion can help you more easily identify what you’re feeling. Sometimes, just labeling a feeling will take the steam out of it. When you’re able to identify your emotions, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll be intentional about your reactions to them.

To use this technique:

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit down.
  • You may want to close your eyes, or focus on something stable.
  • Take deep breaths into your belly, notice your stomach rising and falling with each breath.
  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Do your best to let go of everything outside of you, drawing your attention inward.
  • Do your best to let go of whatever is occupying your mind – worries, obligations, to do lists…
  • Take your time, be fully accepting of where you are and what you’re feeling physically and emotionally.

Happiness

  • If you are able to reach a state of relaxation, and detach from any racing thoughts, think of a memory that still brings you joy.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling happiness in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did your body become warmer?
  • Did you feel your lips forming a smile?
  • Did your eyes well up with tears of joy?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Sorrow

  • Once you have fully experienced your happy memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a memory that brings you sorrow.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling sorrow in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did you feel emptiness in your chest?
  • Did your breathing become more rapid, or more shallow?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Frustration

  • Once you have fully experienced your sad memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a memory that is frustrating.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that memory and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling frustration in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did your jaw or hands clench?
  • Did you feel tension or pain in your neck or back?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

Anxiety

  • Once you have fully experienced your frustrating memory, and noted your body’s responses, take yourself to a thought that causes you anxiety.
  • Most of what causes us anxiety is in the future, rather than the past.
  • Notice the way your body shifts as you revisit that thought and the accompanying feelings.
  • Where are you feeling anxiety in your body?
  • Do you feel it in a single, or multiple places?
  • Does your physical reaction to the emotion come in stages? If so, what was the order in which you felt the sensations.
  • Did you feel nauseous?
  • Did you feel your energy depleting?
  • Stay with your feelings and reactions, let the emotion run its course and fade away naturally.

This technique aids in the discovery of our body’s reactions to emotion and gives us a chance to sit back and observe our physical responses in a safe and comfortable environment. It opens us up to the realization that our emotions gain strength when we fight, suppress, or attempt to ignore them. Acceptance of and leaning into our feelings, allows us to return to a relaxed, neutral state in our mind and body.

Body Scanning

Body scanning is a meditative technique that lets the mind wander, searching the body, looking for areas that are holding tension. Over time, body scans can reveal patterns in where and how we hold onto stress.

Below is an audio recording that will guide you through a short body scanning session. Before you begin, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down. Once you’re situated, press play.

Guided Meditation: Body Scan

When you’re finished, take one more deep breath, wiggle your toes and fingers, bring your knees up to your chest, then roll onto one side. Gradually open your eyes, letting the outside world back in. Give yourself a minute to adjust, then slowly sit up.

Listening to the Body

Our bodies are full of wisdom, all we need to do is learn how to listen to them. When we take the time to unwind and release the residual effects of stress, it unshackles us from the weight of the associated tension, strain, and pain. Without that burden, we are freed to experience joy, wonder, and gratitude. We have the energy to run, play, and live life to the fullest.

Listening to our body opens up a deeper level of self-awareness. It helps us develop inner strength and resilience. It breeds authenticity and promotes self-compassion.

“If you keep your attention in the body as much as possible,
you will be anchored in the now,
you won’t lose yourself in the external world
and you won’t lose yourself in your mind.
Thoughts and emotions will still be there to some extent
but they won’t take you over.”
Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

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Warning Signs of Dating Abuse

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM).

The One Love Foundation was founded in honor of Yeardley Love, a student at the University of Virginia, who was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend.

In her TED Talk:

The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

Kate Hood refers to Yeardley’s death as a “tragedy no one saw coming” (1:57). She goes on to explain that there were indicators of danger, which her family and friends might have noticed, had they known what to look for.

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In abusive relationships, one partner seeks to gain, and maintain, power and control over the other. This is accomplished through the use of various manipulative tactics.

Here are just a few…

Manipulative Tactics

LOVE BOMBING

Love bombing involves showering someone with flattery, affection, and nearly constant communication and attention. As the other person is swept up into a dizzyingly fast-paced relationship, they often feel as though they have found the ideal partner.

“I miss you!”

“Can I see you again tonight?”

“I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

“I’ve never felt like this before.”

“Are you there?”
(five minutes after the initial text)

POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse

DEVALUATION

Unfortunately, in abusive relationships, those same traits that were praised during love bombing are later devalued. This devaluation may come in the form of insults, criticism, contempt, belittling, patronizing, sarcasm, mockery, or jokes at the other’s expense. One of the early signs of an abusive relationship is the devaluation of former intimate partners. 

“You’re going to wear that?”

“You wouldn’t understand, it’s too complicated.”

“I suppose some people might like their food burnt…”

“You let every little thing get to you.”

“Grow up!”

Dangerous Relationships: How To Identify And Respond To The Seven Warning Signs Of A Troubled Relationship

TRIANGULATION

Triangulation is used to pit two or more people against one another. This can occur in a number of ways. The abusive partner may display, or allude to the existence of, a romantic rival to stir up jealousy and insecurity. Conversely, acting as a “go between,” spreading rumors about multiple people to one another, in order to become the source of “accurate” information, also constitutes triangulation. Abusers actively recruit people from outside of the relationship to take their side in conflicts.   

“Everyone agrees with me about this.”

“You can’t trust them. They want to see you fail.”

“They aren’t really your friends. I heard them talking trash about you, yesterday.”

“Alex is a nice person, but so clingy…”

“Even your best friend is concerned about how you’ve been acting.”

Complisult

Complisult is a word that I created to reference one of the more common variations of triangulation. Someone is complimented, in front of another person, in a way that is meant to insult the listener.

“It’s nice to be in a car with someone who knows how to drive.”

This statement was meant to compliment the driver, while simultaneously “taking a stab” at the other passenger.

When two people are involved, and have a history, complisults can be very subtle, hidden, disguised.

Someone who has an intimate partner who recently gave up on their dream of becoming a photographer may covertly make them feel inferior by raving about someone else’s photographs.

An abusive partner who shows disapproval, or even disdain, for a physical attribute or trait in their partner may deepen the wound by praising the same attribute or trait in others, while in their presence.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can–and Should–be Saved

BRANDISHING ANGER

Sudden or explosive displays of anger might be used to intimidate a partner. When anger is used as a weapon to silence someone, shut down a conversation or topic, or push someone to behave in specific ways, it is called brandishing anger.

Manipulative anger can be distinguished from natural anger by looking for patterns in when the anger arises, and also by noticing how abruptly the anger dissipates once the partner complies.

Tears can be used, or brandished, for the same purposes.

They get angry, or cry, whenever you:

  • ask them to help around the house
  • bring up finances
  • want to go out with friends
  • ask about what happened the night they didn’t come home
  • are considering ending the relationship

It’s My Life Now: Starting Over After an Abusive Relationship

MOVING GOAL-POSTS

Abusive partners are constantly increasing, suddenly shifting, or setting unachievable expectations. In the Disney movie Cinderella, when the stepmother told Cinderella that she could go to the ball, but only if she completed all of her chores, she was setting an unrealistic expectation. The stepmother was intentionally setting Cinderella up to fail.

“This is not what I wanted.”

“You cleaned the house, but not the car.”

“I would like all of this done by tomorrow.”

“I suppose this will have to do…”

 “Anyone can get lucky once in a while.”

“I’m shocked this worked. I truly expected you to fail.”

In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People

GASLIGHTING

Gaslighting is a potent form of emotional abuse, used in toxic relationships, to manipulate someone to such a degree that they question their memory, perception, and ultimately their sanity. The abusive partner will lie, deny, and distort the truth to cause uncertainty and doubt. The impact of this technique is dependent on the consistency with which it’s applied. What’s called into question may range from where the person just set their keys down, to whether infidelity or physical abuse has happened.

The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life

“That is not how I remember it.”

“That didn’t happen”

“I never said that.”

“I wasn’t even here last night.”

“I swear, I never touched it. You must’ve lost it.”

Healthy Relationships

We all have rights and responsibilities in our relationships.

Everyone has the right to:

Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse

Resources

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Add "50 First Dates" to Your Long-Term Relationship

When you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s easy to let dating go by the wayside.

“If you do what you did in the beginning of the relationship there won’t be an end.”
Tony Robbins

Do any of these sound familiar?

“I believe in the value of time together as a couple, but life goes by so fast…”

Schedules reflect priorities. Carefully consider how the ways that you’re investing time today might impact your relationship in the future.

“We have date night every other week, but it’s always dinner and a movie…”

It sounds like you might be stuck in a dating rut. You may have wanted to try new things, but either failed to plan ahead, or just lack alternative ideas.

Dating Isn’t Just for Newbies!

“Sure, we have romantic nights out… on Valentine’s Day and our anniversary.”

Carving out time for intimacy becomes even more vital as relationships progress. Connecting as a couple is an essential component of having a healthy and satisfying long-term relationship.

Among the numerous reasons to arrange a regular rendezvous with your significant other.

Dating:

  • Demonstrates the relationship is a priority, that it matters
  • Creates space for flirtation, playfulness, fun, and laughter
  • Strengthens bonds, commitment, and loyalty
  • Increases intimacy, opens new lines of communication
  • Relieves tension and stress
  • Improves communication, fosters friendship
  • Adds fresh, new, and novel experiences, offers a break from the ordinary
  • Reveals hidden aspects of the other person’s personality
  • Allows for deeper and expanded knowledge of their goals, dreams, wants, likes, dislikes, and fears
  • Provides opportunities to develop, or further, shared interests and hobbies
  • Ignites, or reignites, romantic sparks

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“When we were younger we enjoyed date night, now we enjoy being in bed by ten…”

Although we hear the term “date night” thrown around, there’s no reason dates can’t happen in the morning or afternoon.

“I’m not the dress up and go to a show type…”

If you don’t like to dress up, why not get messy while playing paintball.

Dates Don’t Have to be All About, or Just About, the Two of You.

You can go on a double date with another couple, join a book club, take a group tour, participate in a murder mystery dinner, survive an escape room, or focus on giving to others through volunteerism.

You could work cooperatively building model airplanes, or cultivate trust on a high ropes course.

Or, perhaps you’d rather see who really knows who with:

The Quiz Book for Couples

If you’re crunched for time, a date may mean stopping for ten minutes to hold hands while you watch the sun set. If you have time (and money), you might consider taking a two weeks off work to hop a plane to Europe.

Was your first date great? Recreate it! Do it again!

The desire to relax and rejuvenate might lead you to cuddle up with popcorn and Netflix, or send you to the spa for a couple’s massage.

The desire to step out of your comfort zone together might send you barreling down a zipline.

Maybe you only needed to attend an opera once, but you could spend a lifetime gardening together.

If you want your time together to be educational, you might use your “date night” to learn to speak another language or play an instrument. If you’re feeling ambitious and want something more active, swing dance lessons may be perfect.

Would You Rather Plan Dates Together, or Surprise Each Other?

Either way, I’d like to offer a few suggestions…

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Managing Digestive Issues through Self-Awareness and Planning

Following years of struggle with digestive health – Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil – my primary care provider told me I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS comes in three main variations, constipation predominant (IBS–C), diarrhea predominant (IBS–D), and those who are mixed, alternating between them (IBS–M). I lean toward “C”.

My provider and I talked at length about options for treatment and management. Since, I was not thrilled with the idea of trying to resolve my issues with ongoing medication, she recommended taking a daily dose of MiraLAX. I did see a difference in consistency, but I still regularly experienced pain, bloating, abdominal distension, and infrequent bowel movements. Put bluntly, MiraLAX made things… softer.

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For whatever reason I ended up telling a friend at a dance event about having IBS. It turned out she was a dietician, and highly recommended that I try a low FODMAP diet. I was hesitant, I’d previously tried many diets with no relief, but desperate times call for action.

What the Heck are FODMAPs and How Do I Avoid Them?

The diet turned out to be more challenging, and also far more helpful, than I could have ever imagined. Because low FODMAP diets begin with an elimination phase, which is followed by a re-introduction and testing phase, I started paying close attention to what I was eating and how food was affecting me. Over time, I noticed that other factors, which I hadn’t been tracking, were triggering symptoms.

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The secret to my success with IBS, over the past few years, lies in changing my approach to food, fitness, relaxation, and hydration. If I could go back in time, to advise myself at the height of my agony, I’d say, “The key to changing your life is meticulously collecting data and planning ahead.”

Know Thyself

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
Sherlock Holmes

I cannot understate the importance of getting to know yourself. Find out everything you can through your medical providers, but don’t stop there. After you give them your blood, urine, saliva, etc., go home and create a spreadsheet. No one is with you 24/7. You’re the one on the front lines, seeing the subtle (or not so subtle) indications of how your choices and decisions are affecting your body.

I wouldn’t worry too much about what to track in the beginning, you’ll figure it out as you go. Once I adjusted to recording what I was consuming, I started tracking my water intake. Hydration affects the consistency of my bowel movements more than the frequency of them.

Months later, I added my menstrual cycle. I’d noticed that things were always “really moving along” the second day of my period. What I ate, on this one day, seemed to have no negative consequences for my digestive process. So, I’d been treating myself to a donut, or mac and cheese, the second I was sure my monthly guest had arrived. Finally, I’d found a reason to look forward to her visits…

If you track something for months on end and find zero correlation to any of your symptoms, delete it. Recording these details takes up precious time, so allocate that time wisely. Think of it as a work in progress, a living document.

Examples of insights that were brought to my attention through data collection include:

  • If I eat a small amount of bread, my morning waist measurement will be two inches more than the day before. But, so long as I don’t consume any more bread for at least two or three days, I won’t be in any pain.
  • On rest days, when I am not working out, I need to increase my water intake to have the same level of success.
  • My body prefers routine, particularly with respect to my sleep schedule.

Plan, Plan, Plan

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Benjamin Franklin

Changing is easy. Maintaining changes, now that is another story. You see it all the time, someone comes out of the gate, ready to tackle the world. They’re going to get fit, start a new diet, spend more time with loved ones, or save more money. Everything seems to be on track, and then suddenly they hit a wall. The steam runs out. Most concede defeat and return to the status quo. They simply weren’t prepared for predictable barriers and obstacles.

Preparation might come in the form of:

  • Packing lunches for the week every Sunday
  • Scheduling fitness with a friend to make it more difficult to push back or blow off
  • Drinking a glass of water with each meal
  • Getting up an hour before everyone else to meditate while the house is silent

Planning should include preparing for moments when one is lacking willpower.

Do I Have the Will to Become The Person I Want to Be?

Traveling is always a test of my willpower. I’m in a car for long, sedentary stretches. And because I need to stay awake, and aware of my surroundings, I’m more likely to grab a coffee than a bottle of water. I typically struggle to sleep in strange places. And as lovely as traveling is, there may be stress involved in getting there, or in the amount of work that piled up while I was gone. I try to plan for all of these obstacles, but just in case, I bring MiraLAX packs.

If I fall (or jump) off the “FODMAP train”, I write it off as part of being human (with no guilt or judgement). I assume moving toward my goals will involve occasional slips, stalling out, and a setback now and then. These are not failures, or reasons to give up trying. They are inevitable and educational. How we handle setbacks determines our long-term success.

Although I understand that what will help those who suffer from IBS symptoms is unique to the individual, by utilizing the same processes and techniques, we can all find and implement what works best for us. I hope sharing my journey, knowledge, and insights will benefit others, if only by letting you know you’re not alone.

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Help! I’m Having a Bad Day!

Have you ever had a bad day? Are you having one now? I would like to propose a few strategies to employ on just such an occasion.

Strategy One: Get to the Bottom of It. Sherlock it!

To discover what’s really wrong, you may need to turn your attention inward, to collect a little evidence.
Check in with your body

Did you sleep well? If not, was something bothering you prior to going to bed? Maybe you’ll have better luck deciding after a nap…

Are you hungry? Hangry even? Can you say, “extended lunch!”

Are you in pain, or feeling ill? When our body needs to reallocate resources to heal what’s ailing us, it takes a toll on our energy level and emotional state.

Check in with your feelings

Did someone let you down? It may help to decide if it was intentional or accidental. Think about whether you can forgive what happened, and also if you should change the way you interact with that person.

Have you let yourself down? Sometimes we hold ourselves to higher standards than others. Consider whether you’re being too hard on yourself. Extend yourself compassion and love, either way.

What exactly is the feeling behind your bad day? Are you sad, mad, anxious, worried, overwhelmed. Naming and identifying emotions can diffuse them. Labeling also allows for conscious decisions about how to react to our feelings.

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Check in with your habits

When was your last digital detox? Have you been able to connect in person, recently, to those you care most about?

How is your diet? What we eat affects our mood. At times, people engage in emotional eating, which can become a downward spiral. When we feel down, we binge sugar and empty carbs, which leads to feeling worse.

Have you felt the sunlight on your skin? Being out in nature improves our mood. It’s easy, in the winter especially, to become cooped up and suffer from a lack of fresh air.

Keep searching until you find an answer that resonates, has that “ring of truth”. Sometimes just identifying the true source of a foul mood can shift it.

Strategy Two: Check Your Boundaries

Have you been setting appropriate boundaries, particularly around your time?

When you feel overwhelmed, it could be the result of taking on too much. This may stem from an inability to say “NO”.

If you feel your blood boiling over minor incidents, your “short fuse” may be the result of an accumulation of frustration. Failure to express or enforce our boundaries leads to standing by when we feel violated until, finally, the “last straw” opens a flood gate of repressed emotion.

People feel unable to set and enforce healthy boundaries for a number of reasons. We may remain silent because we believe that our wants and needs matter less than those of others. Some are taught to associate martyrdom with love. Others have every desire to express themselves, but lack the social skills and strategies to do so effectively.

Strategy Three: Redirect Your Attention

Sometimes the best way to stop wallowing in a bad mood is to stop thinking about yourself altogether.

Among the many ways to “escape” from your world:

  • Read your way into a world of fantasy and wonder
  • Get swept up in the excitement of an action packed thriller
  • Do something surprising and sweet for someone. Making their day just might make yours as well
  • Reach out to an old friend, catch up, reminisce
  • Break out the photo albums and take a trip down nostalgia lane
  • Volunteer! Serving those in need quickly reminds us not to take what we have for granted

Strategy Four: Run a 3S Analysis

Strengths

Are you well? Reflect on dimensions of wellness – financial, emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, social, spiritual, and vocational. Feel gratitude for all of the many ways you are doing well.

What are you good at? No one is perfect, let the weaknesses go for now and focus on the ways you’ve been, and are, a rock star!

Have you set and achieved goals? Great, what were they? How did you reach them? Could lessons learned through those accomplishments be applied to your current circumstances? Whether or not they can, take a minute to remember the way it felt to satisfy your ambitions, and reach, or exceed, your aspirations.

Support

Are there people who love and support you? Take a minute to feel connected to them. Appreciate how fortunate you are to have them in your life. Go ahead and include your pets as well!

Think back to your past. Did you have teachers, friends, coaches, and others who guided you along your life’s journey? Who has played a role in who you’ve become? Who helped you get to where you are today?

Safety

Are you in immediate danger? Yes, it’s a serious question.

I assume, since you’re reading, you are not! When we’re stressed, our body reacts as though we are in immediate danger.

Your body, and possibly your mind, are catastrophizing. That is, making mountains out of molehills. Having a reaction disproportionate to the threats at hand. This is not just a psychological reaction, there’s a cascade of hormones released during times of stress.

Help your mind put things back into perspective. Will what’s happening now matter in a week? How about in a year? Have worse things happened? And did you survive? (This answer is assuredly yes).  

Thank your body for having your back! Then take some deep breaths (all the way into the belly) and go for a walk. If you can’t leave, go to a happy place in your mind. Take a time-out from reality. Those hormones don’t just disappear. They need time to “run their course”. You can revisit life’s issues when you’re more relaxed. Trust me, they won’t disappear while you’re gone… or maybe they will.

Strategy Five: Recalibrate and Reframe

Definition of the situation is an important concept in sociology. We, humans, frame things in our mind, usually within seconds. We put what we’re experiencing into pre-existing cognitive constructs, then act accordingly. When we do this, we may be labeling what is happening accurately, or we may not. If you walked into a school through a metal detector, for example, you may immediately decide it’s a safe place because security is tight. Conversely, you may decide it’s a dangerous place because they felt the need to add a metal detector. Whichever construct you applied would later influence your thoughts and behavior.

If we label a situation, or our current reality, inaccurately, we have the potential to create or manifest what we believe is already there. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can be self-imposed or other imposed. As a faculty member, I have seen too many students who felt they would fail my class do just that. They didn’t fail due to lack of intelligence; they failed due to lack of effort and application. Because they didn’t believe they would pass, they didn’t apply themselves in ways that would allow them to. They predicted their future, and then went about creating it.

When you’ve had a bad day, at exactly what time did you decide it was a bad day? Was it closer to bedtime, or did you label the day as ruined before lunch? Next time you have a bad day, look at the clock. You may be jumping to conclusions that influence the future.

It’s fine to decide your day is going to be good from the moment your eyes open. I’d actually recommend doing that every morning.

“I woke up again! It must be a glorious day!”

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

Steve Jobs

One cannot argue with his logic. I’ve declared I’m “winning the day!” by the end of breakfast on more than one occasion. Somehow, I was always correct…

If you prematurely label a day bad (i.e. ever), you’re creating a mental barrier to the possibility of improvement, and are likely condemning yourself to a lousy mood. Instead, try labeling what has gone wrong using the past tense.

“I had a rough morning.”

By doing this, you have already linguistically and mentally decided you have reached your daily “rock bottom”, and are currently on the uphill climb.

If you prefer, take a deliberate stand for turnaround. I watched the movie Thunderbirds (released in 2004) with my daughter. Lady Penelope has a wonderful line during a scene when some of the main characters are trapped in a walk-in freezer, presumably freezing. She looks at the others and says, “Right, that’s quite enough losing for one day!” I appreciated both her optimism and conviction.

Strategy Six: Embrace It! Have the “Best Bad Day Ever”!

Make the time to:

  • Sit with your feelings
  • Honor your mood with emotionally appropriate songs
  • Have a sad movie marathon

Engage in self-care:

  • Journal
  • Give yourself a hug, and a hot bath, and a cup of tea, and a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer… or whatever it is that comforts you
  • Visit a museum, or a park, or your garden

Do things that you have been avoiding:

  • Do your least favorite chores, why let them ruin a “good day”
  • Is it tax season…?

We were not meant to be upbeat all the time. It’s not natural or healthy. There will be ups and downs, they’re a part of life. Only, we have the ability to determine when it’s best to adjust and keep moving, and when we should grab our umbrella and walk straight into the storm.

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When You Love a Book…

As a child, I loved to read. I was sucked into stories. They were vivid, felt real, at times I preferred them to engaging with what was happening in the moment.

Girl Reading Book

I love that instant when a book pulls you in, when you can no longer put it down. Up until that point you can pick it up at your convenience, read a chapter, and set it down to do other things. Then, as you turn the next page, you go from being yourself to being the main character. You perceive their world through their eyes. You feel their joy, pain, fear, and sense of pride.

Suddenly, you absolutely must know:

  • How she will handle the knowledge that she was adopted? Will she search for her sister? Would putting together the pieces of her past fill the void that is driving her toward risky behavior and self-sabotage?
  • Why didn’t he come home at 10 o’clock? Did he run away? Did something terrible happen?
  • Why did they ever get together? Don’t they see that the people they’re currently with are wrong for them?
  • How did they get in without breaking the lock? Was it someone she knew? Will someone find out what happened to her in time to stop the killer before there’s another victim?

It was obvious when I’d become hooked on a book, because if I went somewhere, the book went as well. When the person I was with went to the restroom, I had it out, capturing whatever precious few minutes I could squeeze in, here and there. I’d bring it to school, the dinner table, read it with a flashlight hiding under my blankets, long after bedtime on a school night. I might be up all night finishing it. When I finally set the book down, a page or two had been stained by a fallen tear, while others held echoes of my laughter. If you listened closely enough, while fanning the pages, you just might catch the ever so faint traces of my gasps.

When you love a book, the ending of the story doesn’t necessarily finalize your journey with the characters. You create sequels, prequels, and alternate endings in your imagination. You feel justified filling the gaps in their story. After all, you’ve glimpsed their thoughts, shared their hopes and dreams, witnessed their first kiss, and held them in their darkest hours. No one knows them as you do, because you shared their inner thoughts through success and struggle. When you come across people who have the same quirks as your favorite characters, it gives you a sense of nostalgia, a fuzzy feeling, or causes you to chuckle a little.

Dreaming

Although I could become completely immersed in a story, I never considered writing. I didn’t want to create stories, even though I was telling anyone willing to listen every detail of the last book I’d read (along with a few alternate endings I’d come up with). No, I was ready to have adventures of my own! I was brimming with excitement about being the main character of my own story.

I wanted to taste life, love, and even heartbreak, firsthand. I wanted to challenge myself, to be worn down, ready to throw in the towel, until something happened… Something which would give me a spark of hope, propel me forward, and push me well beyond my known potential. I wanted to have close calls, narrowly avoid inevitable destruction, yet somehow emerge victorious. I wanted to collect evidence which would dazzle the jury while devastating the smug killer by suddenly and unexpectedly revealing the truth of the events leading up to the victim’s death.  

Read the entire post on Five Minute Discovery!

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An Athletic Trainer Shares Fitness Strategies

Truth be told, I’ve always been more of a “class person”, when it comes to the gym. I suppose that is, in part, because I don’t have to decide what to do next. The instructor moves, I follow suit.

Earlier this year, I decided to break out of my comfort zone to expand my weight lifting repertoire. When I was trying to decide which trainer to work with (there was no way I was going to figure it all out on my own), I noticed TJ Kuster was very friendly and approachable. He also clearly loves, and lives, his work.

What really clinched the deal for me was that TJ has one of the best handstands (one hand or two) that I have ever seen. That was the icing on the cake, since I’ve decided to reclaim lost abilities from my childhood. It’s all part of my “growing older but feeling younger” strategy (at this point, it’s just a matter of time before I release a photograph, or video, of me doing a spectacular handstand on Instagram!)

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Who is TJ Kuster?

TJ is a certified athletic trainer (ATC), certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), certified personal trainer through the NCSF, and is a certified Parisi Performance Coach. 

TJ specializes in mobility and injury prevention, something he has known he would do since he broke his femur in the 6th grade. He has had rehabilitation following multiple sports related injuries throughout his life. Because he knows what it’s like to be injured, TJ focuses on keeping his clients safe while providing awesome exercise programs that cater to their unique goals.

Meeting with TJ to discuss what he considers when creating programs, advice for beginners, and the importance of various types of movements was eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Q & A

Chris: What is your recommendation for someone who is walking into fitness, or wants to increase their level of fitness?

TJ: If you want to increase your level of fitness, my number one go to would be some sort of resistance training.

I feel like, especially in regard to weight loss, people think, “I just have to do a lot of cardio” or “I have to take up running” or, something like that. When in reality, for most individuals, that could be one of the most harmful ways to go about trying to lose weight and keep it off. They may end up putting a lot of pressure on their joints or not have proper form when running.

Resistance training (also called strength training or weight lifting) is a great place to begin, because it takes the body through a full range of motion. Then, I would follow that up with some low impact High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. For HIIT, someone could do biking, rowing, elliptical machines, or swimming. You’ll want to elevate your heart rate for twenty seconds, then let it come back down for twenty seconds. This will rev up your metabolism without constantly hammering the joints.

Chris: While someone’s doing the HIIT training, would you recommend they use a heart monitor?

TJ: You can train to heart rate, but with beginners, I like to keep it as simple as possible. I have them work until they are out of breath, and then rest until they can talk again.

Chis: So, someone walks into the gym, ready to do some resistance training, where should they start?

TJ: Every workout should begin with an active, dynamic warm-up! I prefer to break a warm-up into three phases:

General Warm-Up

This phase involves some sort of low impact cardio. I might have someone use an elliptical machine, the VersaClimber, or push the sled. Other options include the stationary bike or rower. The goal is to raise the heart rate, elevate core body temperature, and get the blood flowing.

Muscle Activation

Any time you go to lift weights or work out, your vulnerable areas are going to be your shoulders, lower back, and knees. So, during the muscle activation phase of the warm up, I target the upper back, to bring the shoulders into proper alignment. I also target the core, to protect the spine. Finally, I target the hips, which is going to activate the glutes.

Dynamic Stretching

It is important to do a variety of stretches, to use a full range of motion.

Chris: What challenges might someone face who is new to resistance training?

TJ: Great question! If you’re new to weight training, I always recommend working with somebody who knows what to look for, can point you in the right direction. That’s always a good place to start, not that you need a personal trainer for the rest of your life, but to help in the beginning.

During the workout, again, continue until you feel your heart elevated, rest until it comes down. I like the saying,

Push till you can’t, rest until you can.”

Chris: Is variety necessary and beneficial? If so, how much variety is needed when someone begins training?

TJ: For people taking up exercise for the first time, I would recommend working out three days a week. Three whole body strength training days, with a very brief bout of conditioning after each.

I like to do a whole-body workout for beginners, because if you’re trying to go to the gym five or six days a week, to start off with, you’re probably going to burn out quickly. But, if you can realistically make it in three days a week, that’s going to be a habit that you can stick with. However, if you’re only going three days a week, you’re going to want to pick the most beneficial exercises. If you go in, and get on an elliptical for thirty minutes, and you’re just kind of hanging out and watching tv while you do it, you’re probably not going to burn a lot of calories.

Chris: What should beginners do with that precious time?

TJ: There are six basic body movements I take people through.

The first is a squat. It might be a back, front, or goblet squat. I also have people do lunges or curtsey lunges.

The second movement is a hinge. Kettlebell swings, straight bar deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and trap bar deadlifts (basically all the deadlifts), are hinge movements.

The third movement is a vertical press. One example of this movement is the dumbbell shoulder press.

Pull-ups and lat pulldowns are examples of vertical pulls, the fourth movement.

The fifth movement is the horizontal press. Push-ups and the flat dumbbell bench press are examples.

The sixth, and final movement, is the horizontal pull. Rowing movements are horizontal pulls, including: TRX rows, suspension rows, and dumbbell rows.

Chris: People often come into the gym with the best of intentions, but don’t stick with it. What are some of the barriers that prevent success when starting a fitness program?

TJ: The intimidation factor is one of the biggest barriers for beginners, which gets back to the importance of having someone show you the ropes. This is vital, even if it’s just for a couple sessions, because once you feel comfortable, you’re going to keep going.

Someone who is walking in, for the first time, may see someone grunting and squatting four hundred pounds. They may have no idea what they’re looking at, or what to do. They may have no clue how to set up a routine. This is really intimidating.

If you have someone who can give you an idea of what to do, introduce you to other people in the gym, and start you with a simple routine, the intimidation barrier disappears. In the end, it’s the community that’s going to keep people coming back.

Chris: How do you help bring people into the community when you’re working with them?

TJ: It’s all about the interaction with them as people, not just clients. I love the saying,

“People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”

You can be absolutely brilliant with respect to exercise prescription, form, technique, and everything. But if you can’t make a connection with someone as a human being, you’re not very useful as a coach.

I would much rather have a coach working for me who can only design an exercise program “pretty well”, but is personable. Someone who, when taking people through stuff, makes them feel comfortable. This is better than having someone who is brilliant, but doesn’t have those soft skills.

Chris: I imagine that how a trainer corrects someone, and also how often a trainer corrects someone, is important...

TJ: Yes! For me, I’m cautious when it comes to form. But, correction should mainly point out what you’re doing well, versus what you’re doing wrong. If every time somebody were trying something new, I stopped them right away to said “No,” that would very quickly become a negative session. They would possibly feel disturbed. And that’s not what we’re about, we’re about trying to get people to enjoy movement.

Chris: What are some of the greatest benefits of regular physical activity?  

TJ: There’s a ton! Mentally, working out takes the mind off things, it relieves stress, and releases “feel good” hormones. Physically, it helps people maintain a healthy weight and regulates blood pressure.

If you would like to continue to “pick TJ’s brain” for valuable information about working out, check out one or more of the numerous articles he has written for T Nation.

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Talking Stalking

In 2004, January was designated National Stalking Awareness Month.

Stalking is a pattern of behavior, directed at a specific individual, that causes fear or severe emotional distress. This pattern of intimidation and control, two or more instances, can involve any of a wide range of behaviors, including:

  • Continuing to send unwanted communications, or leave gifts for someone after being asked not to
  • Following someone in person, or tracking them using technology
  • Hiring or recruiting someone to track or monitor the targeted individual
  • Using mutual acquaintances as a source of information or research
  • Invading someone’s privacy or stealing their personal belongings
  • Reading someone’s emails, texts, or other communications without their knowledge or consent
  • Showing up or waiting at someone’s home, workplace, or classes
  • Spreading rumors intended to ruin someone’s reputation or call their character into question
  • Threatening to hurt oneself in order to control another’s behavior
  • Threatening the target, their loved ones, or their pets
  • Trespassing on or damaging someone’s property
  • Watching, monitoring, or spying on someone in person or through the use of technology

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Some of the behaviors listed above are crimes on their own. Others are only criminal in conjunction with other behaviors. Because of this, it’s vital for victims to maintain a Stalking Incident and Behavior Log that documents every known incident, and keeps all evidence of communication.

“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that [people] can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means [they’re] troubled.”

Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

Stalkers may be acquaintances, current or former intimate partners, or someone unknown to the target of the unwanted attention. Stalkers have been classified into types based on their relationship to the victim.

It is important to consider the relationship, because victims of stalking by a current or former intimate partner have a higher risk of being seriously assaulted or killed than other domestic violence victims.

Stalkers can also be classified based on the rationale for stalking or the stalkers intentions.

The article “Types of Stalking” outlines five types based on rationale:

  • A Rejected Stalker is unable, or unwilling, to accept the end of a relationship. They either hope to resolve the conflict to “fix” the relationship, or they are seeking payback for the pain they feel has been wrongfully inflicted by their target.
  • An Intimacy Seeker is lonely and desires a relationship. This type of stalker may have delusional beliefs about the person they are targeting.
  • The Incompetent Suitor would like a date, relationship, or to be sexual intimate with thier target. They stalk because they are unaware of or indifferent to the victim’s distress, possibly as the result of an inability to understand and interpret social signals.
  • Predatory Stalkers derive sexual gratification from the sense of power and control they feel while they are pursuing, harassing, and intimidating victims.  

Depending on the medium through which unwanted communication is received, a victim may not know the identity of a stalker. Stalking behaviors that utilize technology and do not involve direct communication can go unnoticed and undetected for long periods of time.

According to “Stalking Facts Infographic” at the Stalking Prevention and Awareness Center (SPARC)

  • The overwhelming majority of those who experience stalking are stalked by someone they know
  • More than 50% of stalking incidents involve current or former intimate partners
  • 1 in 7 victims relocate their residence as a result of the victimization
  • Most stalkers pursue their victims once a week or more

Concerns around this issue should be taken seriously. There are precautions and safety measures that can be implemented if you, or someone you know, fears they are the target of this type of behavior:

  • Report incidents to the police; also consider filing for a Stalking Order of Protection
  • Keep track of every incident, no matter how minor, on a Stalking Incident and Behavior Log
  • Tell your friends, colleagues, and people with authority about your situation
  • If possible, show others a picture of the person who is engaged in stalking behavior
  • Maintain all evidence, or photographs of evidence, including all unwanted communications
  • Change your routes and daily routines
  • Change all of your passwords and phone numbers
  • Disable location services on your devices
  • Block the person on your devices and social media accounts
  • Engage in safety planning
  • Refrain from, or immediately terminate, any contact with the person
  • Do not post plans or your location on social media
  • Take personal information off of websites and social media
  • Do not assume the behavior will diminish over time or stop on its own

It’s tempting to dismiss those things that we find odd, suspicious, or uncomfortable. We tend to rationalize or justify the behavior of others.

“Believing that others will react as we would is the single most dangerous myth of intervention.”

Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

With cases of potential stalking, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. Reach out for help immediately, seek the expertise of those with more experience. Safety is the first and top priority!

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Do I Have the Will to Become The Person I Want to Be?

I, like most people, have visions of who I would like to be. There are things I wish I did more of, and less of, skills I hope to improve, and habits I would like to break.

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She has written many books that introduce practical strategies drawn from scientific research to increase resilience, improve health, and promote wellbeing.

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Reading McGonigal’s book about willpower challenged quite a few of my misconceptions, shedding light on my struggle to reach certain goals.

I doubt I had ever taken the time to define willpower. I am acutely aware that it’s something I possess more of at some points in time than others. It’s clearly visible to me when it’s absent.

“I didn’t have the will to resist the tray of cupcakes in the breakroom at work.”

“I lacked the willpower to make it to the gym.”

“I was waking up early every morning to jog before work, until yesterday. I woke up to the sound of rain washing my willpower away.”

So, What is Willpower?

McGonigal explains that challenges to willpower are actually conflicts between what we want now (for our present self) and what we want later (for our future self). These types of conflicts can’t be avoided, but we can expect them, prepare for them, and be compassionate toward ourselves when our present self prevails.

Not All Goals Are Equal

We have more willpower available to us when we are motivated and determined. We are more committed when what we’re striving for is tied to our ideal identity, who we would like our future self to be. It’s important to ask whether our goals are actually ours. At times, we get caught up in what we feel we “should” want, or what others want for us.

We also want to be realistic. This isn’t to say we can’t have lofty goals, definitely reach for the stars, but we must also acknowledge what it will take to get there.

There are Three Types of Goals

Outcome goals focus on desired results.

“I’d like to be more fit.”

Performance goals set standards by defining the limits we’ll work within.

“I’ll go to the gym for at least an hour, minimally three days a week. When I’m at the gym, I’ll do burpees. I’ll start with 10 per day, then add 5 more each week, until I’ve reached 50 per day.”

Procedural goals focus on the behaviors and strategies needed to reach an outcome.

“I’ll join a gym, set up sessions with an athletic trainer, and record my progress in my journal.”

Strategies and processes are catalysts for meeting performance standards, which pave the way to desired results.

Caving In is a Form of Muscle Failure

Willpower works like a muscle. It can be strengthened through practice, but it also becomes exhausted through overuse. The good news is that we can workout our willpower to increase its strength and endurance. Once you select a goal, break it down into bite size pieces.

I decided a few months ago to work on handstands. My ultimate goal is to press into the handstand and be stable enough, for long enough, to walk on my hands once I’m upside down. This goal would have been unachievable if I’d not started with individual movements to build the skills I need for success.

So far, my quest for the perfect handstand has taken me through the:

  • Pike pushup
  • Plank
  • Dead bug
  • Hollow body hold
  • Core lifts
  • Tiptoe tucks
  • Tripod and traditional headstand
  • Forearmstand
  • Handstand against the wall

My progress is slow but steady, and each step I take forward increases my will to reach my goal.

According to research discussed in McGonigal’s presentation:

Kelly McGonigal: “The Willpower Instinct” | Talks at Google

Learning to do a handstand might improve my ability to eat healthy, procrastinate less, wake up earlier, or put more money in savings. Once I strengthen my willpower, I can apply it to other areas of my life.

What Strengthens Willpower?

Sleep

“Sleep is the best meditation.”
Dalai Lama

No matter what you hope to accomplish, you have a better chance after a good night’s sleep! At McGonigal’s presentation, she shared some of her favorite willpower experiments; studies where small interventions led to significant lifestyle and behavioral changes in participants.

In the first experiment she discussed, half of the people in a substance abuse recovery program were asked to take a mindfulness meditation training to improve their sleep. The breath focused meditation, on average, increased the recovering addicts’ sleep by roughly one hour a night. Those who slept more were far less likely to relapse. Additionally, those who meditated for longer were even less likely to relapse.

Meditation

Meditation is helpful, both on its own, and because it can improve sleep. According to McGonigal, meditating for 10 minutes a day produces better connectivity in the brain after just a few months.

Meditation Shown to Alter Gray Matter in Brain

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise helps to reduce stress, which can drastically weaken our will. Findings from a study at the Macquarie University in Sydney, which investigated the relationship between exercise and self-control, are discussed in the article The Incredible Effect of Exercise On Your Willpower. After two months of fitness, participants were compared in both temptation resistance and perseverance. Those who were exercising regularly not only performed better in those two dimensions, they had less junk food, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. They saw improvements in diet and emotional regulation. They were even more punctual.

Healthy Eating

Nutritious food strengthens our willpower. Following a more plant based diet changes the way our brain uses energy by reducing spikes in sugar levels that interfere with our mind’s functioning.

The Power of a Plant-Based Diet for Good Health

Focus on Failure

When you relapse or fail to meet a performance measure, how do you feel? If you feel guilty, are critical of yourself, or regret what has happened, you are more likely to cave in, or miss the target the next time around. Contrary to popular belief, shaming ourselves is not a good motivational tool.

It’s better to see failure as part of the process of progress, console yourself with comforting words and support, and use what has happened as a valuable learning tool.

We’re often told to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, receiving a medal, and achieving the dream. It’s important to visualize success, but if that’s all we do, we’re left overly optimistic and unprepared to recognize trouble heading our way. Seeing obstacles before we reach them is crucial in avoiding or overcoming them.

McGonigal addressed an unfortunate finding that tracking success can lead to slacking off. She explained that when our future self is being celebratory and feels satisfied, our present self has an opportunity to slip into the driver’s seat.

I have experienced this firsthand. After completing my first 5k (there was some combination of walking and running involved), I went to a local coffee shop, where I was debating what to order. I was leaning toward eating something healthy to maintain the benefits of the morning.

The person behind me, who was a much more seasoned runner, pointed out that just after a 5k is the perfect time to splurge. He encouraged me to have whatever I wanted. He subscribed to an “earn the cheat” philosophy. Since I was on the fence already, it didn’t take much to sway me toward my immediate desires. Just a tiny little nudge…

The solution: as you imagine and track success, also spend time imaging and tracking failure. Imagine every single thing that could go wrong, interfere, get in your way, or prevent success. Then think about how you will move past those roadblocks. Track your failures to see what they share in common.

I’m most likely to go to the gym when I’m going with someone else (willpower is contagious). I’m less likely to go to the gym in the afternoon than the morning, and even less likely to make it if I plan to go in the evening (willpower is spent, and therefore wanes throughout the day).

Employ These Willpower Strategies

According to McGonigal’s book, those who are able to exert self-control, when faced with challenges to willpower, are using one or more mental strategies: I won’t, I want, I will.

“I won’t” is the ability to completely disregard the desire of the body and walk away from cravings, or anything else that’s enticing us. It’s likely what you think of when you hear the term willpower.

“I want” is about knowing and focusing on the end goal. Lifestyle changes begin with becoming aware of our inner desires. Once we know where we hope to go, we can compare that to where we are. The end result must be appealing enough to override inertia, resistance to change, etc.

When we are contemplating a change, we carefully weigh the costs of the activities involved (waking up early, time investment, financial investment) against the benefits of achieving our ultimate goal (feeling better, getting sick less, learning a new skill). Once it has been determined something is worth the effort, we have incentive to delay gratification.

 “I will” allows us to do something we would prefer not to, even things that make us uncomfortable, to reach our long-term goals. Success depends on remembering those goals during moments of temptation.

As mentioned earlier, stress and sleep deprivation are willpower killers. Sometimes we can reorganize our lives to increase sleep and reduce stress, but there are times when we cannot. Or, because of our current priorities, we may chose not to.

Are those times predictable? I can predict that I will not sleep well the evening of New Year’s Eve. I can also predict that I will feel added stress on the first day of every month, when I am paying bills. I anticipate reduced willpower on these occasions. I also expect to completely exhaust my willpower from time to time.

When something is predictable, it is designable.
Nate Silver

If we know when our present self is most likely to take the wheel, we can be sure to plot a course that will have fewer detours. We can modify our schedule to ensure we’re coming in to challenging times with a solid night sleep. We can eat a hearty meal in preparation for our energy needs, enlist external support, and go in knowing that we are human beings who steer off course now and then. Perhaps most importantly, we must find a balance between spending all of our time focused on a self that does not yet exist and appreciating our self as we are here and now.

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On the Fence About Yoga?

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll, who leads a Mind and Body Yoga class at Advocate BroMenn’s Health and Fitness Center. That conversation spanned many topics, from his journey into yoga and the positive ways the practice has influenced his life to raising children with technology, both as a tool and a distraction.

Near the end of our conversation, we looked at the questions we had intended to discuss (for the first time) to ensure we didn’t miss anything. We both agreed our discussion wouldn’t be complete until we talked about the greatest challenges that beginners face.

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You Don’t Have to Be “Stretchy” to Do Yoga!

Tom shared some of the most common rationale people have given him, over the years, about why they weren’t interested in yoga. Without a doubt, what he has heard most frequently is “I’m not stretchy.” I was surprised to hear this, because yoga is an integral part of the reason I’ve remained “stretchy” over time.

A quick Google search made it clear that Tom isn’t the only teacher hearing this excuse for avoidance. My search revealed an absurd (no exaggeration) number of videos targeting this audience. In my favorite clip, appropriately titled “Yoga for Inflexible People,” Brett Larkin opens by saying she made the video, by request, for the “flexibility impaired.”

Yoga Life’s blog post – once again appropriately titled, “I can’t do yoga – I’m not stretchy!” – details a wonderful conversation to illustrate the logical fallacy in this reasoning. The conversation begins with someone explaining that they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes. The teacher points out that they actually can, and do, when they put shoes on. The instructor goes on to set the record straight:

I’m going to let you into a little secret… *looks around to check no one’s listening* IT’S OK TO BEND YOUR KNEES IN YOGA!!!! Seriously, you can bend them so deep you’re practically squatting if that’s what it takes! The only things that matter in a yoga pose are that you’re there, you’re doing it safely, and that it feels good.

Yoga isn’t strictly about being, or becoming, flexible. And although it didn’t come up in my conversation with Tom, I feel the need to mention that yoga isn’t, as sometimes perceived, “just an hour of stretching”. It builds strength, improves posture, aids in digestion, and yes, it will improve your range of motion. But that’s listing just a handful of the numerous physical benefits, which brings me to another point that Tom felt was essential for novice yogis to realize: there are also a multitude of psychological benefits to the practice!

Your First Session

Tom suggested that if you’ve never attended a yoga class before, you should go straight up to the teacher to let them know it’s your first time.

Also, let them know if:

  • You’re nervous or uncomfortable
  • You’re concerned about limitations
  • You have recent injuries, or other medical conditions

The teacher should respond graciously and kindly to your introduction. Then they’ll let you know what props you need to grab and where to find them (mats, blocks, bolsters, straps, etc.). Due to the time required to choose a spot, get situated, and also out of respect, be sure to arrive early.

Go to the studio or gym website, or call ahead, to see if there’s anything they recommend you bring with you (maybe a water bottle). Note that some places will provide mats while others will not.

As is pointed out in Off the Couch and Onto the Mat: What to Expect from Your First Yoga Class, comfortable clothes are a must.

“Wear a tight-fitting top so that when you are in an inversion (like Downward Dog), your top doesn’t come down over your head.”

Comfortable shoes, on the other hand, are not needed. You’ll be removing your shoes, along with your socks, before you begin, possibly before you even enter the room.

Yoga Isn’t Just About Physical Postures

Yoga has an extensive history. Whether or not it’s discussed in individual sessions, it’s important to note that yoga is not strictly engaged in as a form of fitness. Among other things, it draws practitioners into the present moment.

As George M. Posi so eloquently stated, yoga truly is:

Meditation in Motion.”

Yoga Archives – Mindfulness Journey

In Sanskrit, the word “Yoga” is used to signify a connection or union. It encompasses the whole process of becoming more aware of who we are. This increased awareness fosters self-compassion. Because yoga heightens mindfulness, it also encourages inner growth. Personal development challenges our fixed mindsets and cultivates a growth mindset. Put another way, yoga increases conviction in the potential to develop our abilities.

“A growth mindset creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.”

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Resist Comparisons

To avoid injury we learn to respect our physical limitations. This stems from the recognition that everyone’s going at their own pace. We’re able to see that everyone’s on their own journey.

Tom mentioned that self-judgement often comes in the form of comparisons. People worry, for example, that they’re not as young as others in the class, that they’re not as good as they believe they should be, or that being incapable of doing some of the poses equates to failure. He points out that these kinds of thoughts are a mind game we play with ourselves.

We all have our unique gifts and abilities! Even the most experienced yogi finds some poses challenging. There are almost always poses that someone can’t do without modification, for a variety of reasons. A posture is done “perfectly”, not when it looks elegant to an outside observer, but when the person executing the posture is holding it at the edge of their ability. Yoga is achieved through appreciation of our body’s talents and respect for its limitations.

Go Back!

One possible barrier that Tom brought up was having the discipline to get to class and stay with it long enough to experience the benefits. It’s important to expect a learning curve. You won’t be able to do postures perfectly the first time out (or ever).

Selecting a Good Starting Style

Classes that advance through sequences of poses at the slower end of the speed continuum may be the best place for a beginner to start. They are more methodical, placing a greater emphasis on form. Having proper form reduces the likelihood of injury, later, when sequences are performed more quickly.

Slower, more beginner friendly classes include:

Some of the more advanced classes may be titled:

Also, if you see classes numbered, level 2 and 3 classes will be harder than those ranked level 1.

Again, from a safety standpoint, it’s best to become comfortable with form, first and foremost. Tom advises sticking with a more beginner friendly class for ten-ish sessions before branching out. This will give you time to become more confident and learn some yoga terminology. You’ll also have a chance to learn your strengths and limits.

Once you’re comfortable, try something new! What the heck, sample all the styles! Find classes that are a natural fit for you, and others that challenge you to stretch your comfort zone. There are so many different varieties, and there’s even more diversity in how they’re presented.

Bon Voyage!

Yoga is a beautiful journey, that for some will last a lifetime. So pack your bags (or in this case your comfy clothes) and set out on your new adventure!

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What the Heck are FODMAPs? And How Do I Avoid Them?

FODMAP stands for:

  • Fermentable
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Disaccharides
  • Monosaccharides
  • And
  • Polyols

It is a list of short chain carbohydrates. What FODMAPs have in common is that they can be difficult to digest.  They range from being inadequately absorbed in the small intestines to indigestible.

Some people have adverse reactions to consumption of short chain carbohydrates. These reactions include:

  • Abnormal bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Bloating or abdominal distention
  • Cramping
  • Excessive gas, flatulence
  • Nausea

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These adverse reactions are not a consequence of malabsorption of short chain carbohydrates. They result from the response of the body, in some people, to that malabsorption.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a chronic condition where someone fairly frequently experiences many, or most, of the aforementioned symptoms. IBS is one of more than a dozen functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

The collection of symptoms that fall under the umbrella of IBS are, at times, the result of a dysfunction of the gut–brain–microbiome axis. For this reason, those who suffer from IBS are often advised to take prebiotics and probiotics, engage in relaxation, and practice stress management techniques.

There is also a connection between IBS symptoms and our enteric nervous system (ENS), also called the “brain in the gut” or “second brain”. I prefer to think of it as the source of my gut feelings and instincts.

Because IBS has a variety of causes, what allows people to successfully reduce or eliminate symptoms varies, as well.

Breaking Down the Letters

The Low FODMAP Diet was the result of research conducted at Monash University. It is one way to tame symptoms associated with IBS.

Fermentable

The “F” in FODMAP, refers to the fermentation that happens when intestinal bacteria consume undigested carbohydrates. In other words, it describes a process that, for some, leads to digestive issues.

Oligosaccharides

The “O” in FODMAP refers to oligosaccharides, which are chains of sugars (fructans, galacto-ogliosaccharides, etc.). Some of the more commonly used foods containing oligosaccharides are:

  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cashews
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Soy milk
  • Wheat
Disaccharides (lactose, maltose, sucrose, etc.)

The “D” in FODMAP references disaccharides. They are formed when two monosaccharides link together. Among others, the following foods containing disaccharides:

  • Buttermilk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Custard
  • Hot chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Kefir
  • Milk
  • Milk chocolate
  • Processed or soft cheeses
  • Whipping cream
Monosaccharides

The “M” in FODMAP stands for monosaccharides, like fructose, which contain a single sugar molecule. Foods high in fructose include:

  • Agave
  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Cherries
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Mangoes
  • Molasses
And…

The “A” in FODMAP stands for and, apparently they needed to buy a vowel.

Polyols

Polyols are the “P” that completes FODMAP. They are sugar alcohols (erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, etc.). Some of the foods containing polyols are:

  • Apricot
  • Butternut squash
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Mushrooms
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches

Alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, and spicy foods may also trigger symptoms.

Following a Low FODMAP Diet

A low FODMAP diet begins with an elimination phase. For two to six weeks, all of the foods containing high FODMAPs are removed from your diet. Because this phase is so restrictive, many find it difficult to follow. Since restaurants are not yet classifying menu items as low FODMAP, or FODMAP friendly, you may need to make everything from scratch, at home.

The second phase involves the reintroduction of foods. It is very important to introduce them one at a time, or it becomes nearly impossible to identify the source of troubles, should they arise. Ideally, you will want to try including just one new ingredient each week. Begin with the foods that will give you the most “bang for your buck”, such as garlic. Alternatively, you may begin with those foods that you adore most. When you are able to handle one food, try a few others from the same category. It is possible that the entire group won’t affect you negatively. Note that some foods appear in more than one category. For example, apples contain both fructose and sorbitol. Therefore, your reactions to them may be less telling with respect to categorical sensitivities.

Phase three implements a personalization of dietary restrictions, or reductions, based on the results of your trial and error during phase two. For example, I should never consume an onion again. Some foods, like blueberries, I can handle in moderation. And I enjoy others once in a while, including pasta, when combined with plenty of hydration, regular exercise, and low levels of stress.

“The diet was helpful for a couple of reasons. Most notably – IT WORKED!”

IBS: Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil

When the third phase is complete, your newfound nutritional guidelines should be far more sustainable.

As awareness increases, sites and books full of recipes and tips are being published by chefs, dieticians, and those living with IBS, to ensure that following a low FODMAP diet doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor!

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Yoga as a Journey, Lifestyle, and Healing Practice

Stumbling onto a Comprehensive Yoga Experience

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll. I met Tom at a West Coast Swing lesson, then bumped into him again when I walked into his Mind and Body Yoga class at Advocate BroMenn’s Health and Fitness Center.

I have been to many yoga classes over the years. I typically don’t know what style of yoga I’m participating in, which can make it more difficult to find classes I’d like. In general, I enjoy sessions that begin with taking a few breaths to become grounded. I prefer to spend time in each pose, noticing how tiny tweaks affect my balance, posture, and what muscles are being activated. I also enjoy hearing tips and having insights provided to me that I might miss while using a book or YouTube, as a guide.

Through the years, learning about the history, thoughts, values, and viewpoints behind the practice has fostered my connection to the larger yoga community. This connection has led to an incorporation of yoga into my identity, something that influences who I am, rather than just being something I engage in.

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Perhaps my favorite moment in a session is when the instructor asks you, near the end, to lie down for a guided meditation. When I have attended sessions that do not include a final meditation, or closing salutation (for example, Namaste), I feel robbed. It’s akin to the feeling I have after watching a movie that left too many loose ends.

It’s rare to find all of the elements I appreciate most in a single yoga class. I was surprised and incredibly grateful to stumble upon everything I enjoy most in Tom Carroll’s session.

Tom has a calm and peaceful demeanor, and as an outside observer, it’s obvious to me that he’s living what he’s teaching. He is approachable, and his ability to convey knowledge effectively has made his class on of the most diverse I’ve attended. People of all ages, levels of ability, and experience leave feeling it was an hour (and five minutes) well spent.

I wanted to uncover some of the secrets behind Tom’s teaching style and relaxed disposition.

Lifelong Journeys Begin with a Single Step

Tom Carroll currently teaches yoga and meditation, part time, at various locations around Bloomington, Illinois. He also runs a leadership academy at the Mennonite College of Nursing.

We spent some time talking about his yoga journey, which began following a back injury, in his 30s. Tom was attempting to come to terms with his medical diagnosis and the accompanying news that he would need steroid injections… indefinitely. He was still struggling with that realization while attending a men’s retreat in Chicago.

Also in attendance was Gabriel Halpern, who, according to Yoga Journal’s article “10 Influential Teachers Who Have Shaped Yoga in America” has:

“influenced nearly every single major teacher at Chicago’s yogic strongholds…”

Attending Gabriel’s classes brought significant improvement in Tom’s back. As the pain and tightness were disappearing, he was learning the underlying philosophy of yoga. Gabriel’s classes were in the Iyengar tradition, named after B.K.S. Iyengar, who saw yoga as a lifestyle, philosophy, and practice. 

“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life.” 

B.K.S. Iyengar

Tom enjoyed Gabriel’s precision, his focus on adaptation, and his incorporation of yogic principles.

Transition & Immersion

Twenty years later, Tom had experienced many styles of yoga, and was also participating in, or had participated in, “a bazillion” other types of physical training. Currently, because he desires joint longevity, Tom is practicing yoga nearly exclusively. He is doing very well physically, never having needed a second set of steroid injections.

Tom left a corporate position after his wife passed away suddenly, following a heart attack, in 2016. He was left questioning what he really wanted to do with the remainder of his time. Well aware of how precious life is, and how quickly it passes, he wanted to devote his energy to doing more of those things he loved most. With his whole world flipped upside down, there would never be a better time for an overhaul.

In January of 2018, Tom hopped on a plane to Costa Rica, where he completed his 200 hours of yoga teacher training. Although he didn’t know it when he signed up for the program, the woman who taught the certification course was trained in Iyengar yoga, just like Gabriel Halpern.

Tom loves what he does and it shows. When we met, he lit up every time he talked about yoga, watching his grandchild, working with students in his leadership course, or traveling. Although he had previously traveled extensively, it hadn’t been for pleasure.

Today, yoga as a mindset, perspective, and lifestyle is evident in every aspect of Tom’s life.

Beyond the Mat: Fostering Yogic Principles and Practices

The Eight Limbs of Yoga sums up much of Yogic Philosophy.

  • Yamas are ethical guidelines, such as: be honest, avoid violence, do not envy or take what is not yours, be true to your word, have compassion for yourself and others
  • Niyamas are practices, which include: willpower, self-awareness, belief in something greater than oneself, respect for people and property
  • Asana refers to yoga poses, which are meant to be used as mental preparation for meditation, but the term also refers to a mindset. The Asana mindset is that of a novice student: ready to learn, eager, curious
  • Pranayama is the “cultivation of our vital life force” or the use of breathing techniques to: increase concentration, quite our thoughts, invite inspiration, and ground ourselves
  • Pratyahara is the practice of turning our attention inward, to see beyond the limitations of self, to step outside of (and move beyond) our thoughts
  • Dharana allows us to hone our minds and learn to attain a singular focus
  • Dhyana is also referred to as flow. When we are in this state, we feel: connected to everything yet attached to nothing, hyper aware yet relaxed, blissful and content, completely unaware of the passage of time
  • Samadhi is ecstasy, transcendence, enlightenment

Beneath the Surface

Tom and I discussed the ethics, breathing practices, postures, and three levels of meditation articulated through the eight limbs. He explained that all of these elements are present in every lineage of yoga, even though some lineages have focused more on specific aspects over others. They may be present “behind the scenes”, something a teacher considers but may not share with students.  

The principles represented by the eight limbs separates yoga, a holistic, comprehensive approach to wellness, from other physical fitness activities.

The Mat as a Mirror

When Tom decided to become certified as a yoga instructor, he wanted to ensure that the safety of his students was a high priority, and that anyone (no matter their level of fitness or experience with the practice) would find his classes accessible. He also wanted his students to know that yoga involves mind, body, spirit, and emotion.

“The physical postures themselves can be insights… “

Tom Carroll

If a physical posture is difficult, for example, our response might reveal insights into how we handle difficult situations in other areas of our lives.

Tom understands that students who judge themselves harshly “on the mat” are likely hyper-critical of themselves “off the mat”. He also has seen the potential for yoga to allow people to discover their true selves. Yoga reflects back our habitual negative thought patterns, which were previously outside of our conscious awareness or careful consideration.

Yoga can help us learn to decenter, to detach from our thoughts, to become an observer of our own minds. We learn to watch our thoughts as they float on by. This new awareness brings insights that allow us to become intentional about the ideas we want to entertain versus those we want to let go.

Embracing the “Rumble”

Tom talked about students’ attempts to achieve challenging poses. He can usually tell when participants are pushing themselves toward achievement, or past their limit (edge), because they become tense and begin holding their breath. Of course, both of these reactions are counter-productive to moving into or holding a posture.

Over time we become more mindful of our boundaries, tensions, and breathing. This newfound awareness, acceptance of ourselves as we are, where we are, can be brought back into our lives, work, and relationships.

Our increased awareness can reveal emotional states.

  • Do we feel like we’re good enough?
  • How do we approach relationships?
  • How do we address conflicts?

When we become patient, calm, and still, we realize suffering is temporary. We understand that good times, as well as tough times, will ebb and flow. As we quiet our minds, we pave the way to connect to our internal power to heal.

Eventually, we learn to remain with the poses, to stay in the present and have mindful awareness of what we are engaged in. Tom still feels challenged, from time to time, as any human being would, on days when he is less focused and he feels less grounded.

There are multiple layers of complexity within yoga. On the one hand, there are poses that are physically challenging to any yogi. On the other hand, the holding of poses for longer periods of time can be mentally and emotionally challenging. Poses may be physically difficult because they require a great deal of strength, balance, flexibility, or quick movements from pose to pose. The faster a participant moves through a sequence, the more demanding it is.

Healing through Yoga

Yoga has been a source of healing and recovery for people suffering from, amongst other things:

Medical Yoga is a term for yoga practices utilized in the prevention and treatment of illness, diseases, or disorders.

“The burden due to stress-related illness is quite concerning. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that … about 75% of all physician visits, and up to 80% of all visits to primary care providers are for stress-related complaints. These involve a wide spectrum of complaints, including headache, back pain, hypertension, arrhythmias, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, depression, anxiety, skin problems, fatigue, obesity, migraines, hyperlipidemia, and accidents.”

Stephens, Ina. “Medical Yoga Therapy” 

Time (and Life) Orientations

According to Tom, one of the key reasons people find yoga healing, particularly for those with anxiety or depression, is that it allows us to step back and gain insight into where our minds are wondering off to. As we start to step back from and observe our thoughts during yoga practice, we realize that our thinking gravitates toward one of two directions. Most people either focus on, are living in, the future or the past.

Those who have a future orientation are prone to getting caught up in preparation. They can become so fixated on planning or list making that they begin to live in the future, worrying about things that haven’t occurred yet. Although nothing is wrong in the present, the stress felt over what may become is very real. In the end, they often fail to meet unrealistic expectations and demands, which they themselves have put into place. Additionally, some are overwhelmed with concern about all of the unknowns that lie ahead. This can lead to anxiety or apprehension.

When people orient toward the past, they can get caught up in what could have been, what they should have said, or wish they had done. This can lead to regrets about the present, or how they ended up there. Sometimes the result is a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, sorrow, or depression.

Understanding where our mind goes when it’s wandering can be extremely insightful. Learning to stay in the present allows for greater connection to others, authenticity, and appreciation for our experience of the moment.

“Think about how much our world honors: future, future, future, future. Rarely are we completely attentive to someone. It’s almost a gift when you’re really present with someone, and there is no electronic media involved. You’re just listening, conversing, and sharing with one another. Think about how rare that’s becoming.”

Tom Carroll

I thoroughly enjoyed being “really present” with Tom, the other day. It was energizing and thought-provoking. He had so much wisdom to impart, I couldn’t possibly cover it all in a single post.

Continue with

On the Fence About Yoga?

Yoga isn’t, as sometimes perceived, “just an hour of stretching”. It builds strength, improves posture, aids in digestion, and yes, it will improve your range of motion. But that’s listing just a handful of the numerous physical benefits…

Until then, I hope you’ll join me in a Moon Salutation!

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The Art of Assertiveness

My default response used to be “Yes!”

When someone said, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

I would say, “Sure, what is it?”

Consequently, I was often overworked, overwhelmed, and my relationships were strained.

Think about the level of generosity offered in that statement. Notice, also, the lack of assertiveness, appropriate boundary setting, and self-care. I was committing to something before even hearing the request (a truly cringeworthy habit)!

One day, I stumbled across an idea – if you’re not willing to say “no” when you want to, you’re not really choosing to say “yes”, either. That was the beginning of a deep dive into the importance of asserting myself.

Misconceptions about Assertiveness

A common misconception is that outgoing, extroverted, or gregarious people are also assertive. Although they are often used, and perceived as synonymous, each of these terms has a different and distinct meaning. They may overlap, and then again, they may not.

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Introverts and Extroverts

Introverts are often presented and described as being quiet and shy, maybe even socially awkward or anti-social. Leaders are often presumed to be extroverted, as are class clowns, and the last one standing at a party. While I understood that introversion and extroversion were invisible to an onlooker, until recently, my definition was just as flawed.

I, like many, saw the distinction as related to where a person derives their energy. I’d been told that introverts’ batteries were drained by human interaction, particularly with large groups. Whereas, for extroverts, it was “the more the merrier”, or adding people adds voltage.

The reality is:

“It’s your sensitivity to stimulation. If you’re an introvert, you’re more prone to being overstimulated by intense or prolonged social interaction—and at that point, reflecting on your thoughts and feelings can help you recharge. But introversion-extroversion is about more than just social interaction. Extroverts crave stimulating activities like skydiving and stimulating beverages sold at Starbucks. Introverts are more likely to retreat to a quiet place, but they’re very happy to bring someone else with them.”

Adam Grant
5 Myths About Introverts and Extroverts

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Degrees of Assertiveness

Another common misconception is that people are either assertive, or they are not. Assertiveness is on a continuum, we all have it to some degree, and everyone (many of us, at least) could stand to develop our ability further.

Attitude & Behavior

Assertiveness is about thoughts, not just actions. In other words, assertiveness is a mindset, that is demonstrated through our behavior. It is also a skill, that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. For those who are low on the assertive continuum, attempts may be rough, unpolished. With practice, discomfort fades, asserting oneself becomes more natural, and assertions may even develop a certain elegance or finesse.

Persons, who are assertive, are able to:

  • Articulate their needs, desires, and rights
  • Stand up for themselves when necessary
  • Establish their boundaries, while respecting others’
  • Be honest even when it is difficult

Assertiveness is not about “getting what you want”, it’s about having your desires be a part of the conversation, alongside of and as valued as anyone else’s.

Being assertive does not mean being rude or aggressive toward other people. In fact, it’s not predominantly about other people at all. It is about self-control, self-respect, and healthy boundaries.

Express Yourself!

There is a correlation between lacking assertiveness and having low self-esteem or low self-worth. However, low self-esteem is not the only reason people fail to express their wants and needs. They may have learned to fear speaking up, or simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice expressing themselves.

Failing to express oneself or set boundaries can cause difficulty, both personally and professionally. When we hold in our emotions, letting them build up, we are more likely to explode as the result of a “last straw.” The inability to say “no” can lead to feeling used, manipulated, and resentful (toward others and yourself).

Whether or not we feel heard has a strong emotional impact. When we fail to assert ourselves, we risk leaving conversations feeling confused, sad, or irritated. Conversely, when we are effectively asserting ourselves, we feel positive and empowered.

Unsure how assertive you are? Take the inventory!

Looking Inward

Changes in attitude and behavior start with self-reflection and awareness. Begin by watching what you’re doing and saying, or aren’t doing and saying. Pay attention to others’ responses and reactions to you, as well as cultural messages received from the media.

Notice any assertive people in your life. Watch them, listen to them, ask them questions. If you’re lucky, you may find a mentor!

Is assertiveness encouraged in your family, at your workplace, and in your society? If so, is it nurtured and appreciated equally? Or, is it encouraged in some, but discouraged in others (perhaps based on age, gender, status, etc.)?

Check in with your thoughts, particularly critical or defeating internal voices.

  • Do you know where those ideas originated?
  • Are the negative thoughts you own? If not, are they the opinions of a sibling, parent, or high school coach?
  • Are your thoughts helping or hindering you?
  • Are they based on a past experience?
  • Are they based on logical fallacies? If so, what is an alternate perspective?

Know thyself! You cannot ask for what you are unaware that you require, just as you cannot implement a boundary you don’t realize you have.

Is Assertiveness Impolite?

I have trouble walking away from people selling things, in person or on the phone. I’ve taken many a detour to avoid someone peddling sea salt in the mall.

The cause of my dilemma stems from a desire, identity, and a definition. I want to be polite, and I like to see myself as a good person. There is nothing wrong with either of those two things. The problem lies in my definition of politeness. I want to connect to people, to hear what they have to say, to truly listen and attempt to understand. I can remember feeling dismissed or ignored, and would never want to cause someone else to feel that way. I see hearing someone out as an essential component of being polite.

There is an alternative interpretation of these situations. One where hearing the person out is actually rude and inconsiderate….

A salesperson is working. Their livelihood may depend on selling a certain number of products over the course of a day, week, or month. To listen to the entirety of what they have to say, with no intention of making a purchase (regardless of the benefits of the product or how good a deal being offered), is to waste their precious time. It is better to decline their offer quickly, but kindly, so they may direct their energy elsewhere.

I had to process and internalize that shift in perspective before I could change my behavior in those types of situations.

Becoming Assertive

The book, Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships, by Robert Alberti, PhD and Michael Emmons, PhD, outlines these key components of assertive behavior:

  • Making eye contact increases directness and, typically, perceived sincerity
  • Good posture and facing your entire body toward the person you are speaking to conveys confidence and may invite more personal conversation
  • Communications are clearer and more effective when facial expressions align with what is being said
  • Vocal tone, inflection, and volume can influence how persuasive we are or whether we come across as credible
  • Fluency, the flow of our speech, when broken can convey lack of sincerity or seriousness
  • As they say, “timing is everything”! But it is better to interject after the perfect moment than not at all
  • Although it may seem counterintuitive, improving listening skills increases our ability to be assertive
  • Becoming aware, as mentioned earlier, of our thoughts and feelings is a vital part of creating and sustaining behavioral changes
  • Persistence pays off! No one is a natural at anything on their first attempt. Stick with it, muddle through, don’t give up!
  • Content and context matter. People are more receptive to information presented through “I” statements. Showing interest in and concern for others will, most of the time, leave them more receptive to hearing you out

Being assertive won’t always change outcomes, but it can shift your attitude and feelings about, or how you approach, challenging situations.

Effectively asserting yourself has the potential to transform all of your relationships for the better. Most importantly, your relationship with yourself!

When Passion, Purpose, and Money Don’t Cross Paths

There is a lot of talk about finding one’s passion, following life’s purpose, and doing something that ignites the fire inside. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” types of slogans sound very appealing when we begin our journey into the real world. 

But what if you tried to go after your dreams and found that they don’t always line up well with the need to survive financially in the 21st century? What do you do then? 

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I remember pacing the floor of our small kitchen at eighteen, mere weeks before graduating high school. My mother was sitting at a table, listening to my ramblings regarding college. There was no question whether I should attend or not, but I had no idea which degree to pursue.  

Just a few years prior to this, my family and I moved from Ukraine into the Land of Opportunity with several bags of clothes and a bunch of fuzzy expectations. Before we immigrated, I was already attending art college and wasn’t intimidated one bit by the prospect of joining the ranks of poor artists who sold their paintings on the streets of Odessa. 

What was different this time? Was I simply becoming more adult-like with a sense of responsibility and a realistic outlook on life? Or was I giving up on an opportunity to pursue my passion? 

“Go into healthcare,” my mother said. “You will always have a job.” 

And so I did. 

Even though I don’t regret my decision, I wish my choices took me in the direction of my creative beginnings. In my pursuit of the American dream, I was swamped with the financial demands of daily living. My self-expression was set aside for many years as I divided my time between career, business, and family. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I realized how much I missed my artistic side and how empty my life was becoming without it. 

I decided it was time to invest in myself. With grown kids and stable income, I had the means and the time to return to art as a hobby and to work on my creative writing. Something amazing happened. It was so much more fun to do these things without the pressure of performance or the need to conform to any standards of what’s popular at the time. 

I was free to go after my interests to my heart’s content. 

Over the years, this turned from a hobby into something more. My first book

The Seven Lives of Grace

came out, inspired by my dream to see myself, and everyone else, utilize their talents. My blog, Five Minute Discovery, became an avenue to express my thoughts and to encourage others. And my art made my life more colorful. 

Why am I sharing this? 

A lot of people, myself included, are having a hard time aligning the need to make an income with their true purpose and passion. The notion of a starving artist is a real thing on the road to success. But material well-being and creativity doesn’t have to be an “either or” choice. 

When I meet creative individuals who are channeling their entrepreneurial spirit into the income-producing pathway, I am always excited to hear their story. It’s a gift. They get to do what they love every day of their lives while most of us have to keep a day job. But we often don’t know about the hours of hard work these people had to put in to achieve their dream. They rose before dawn or stayed up at night for years before they saw any fruit. It’s all about perseverance. 

Let me give you a bit of encouragement – true passion will always prevail and will get its reward. 

So, go ahead, get a degree that pays well, get a job to support your family, but don’t give up on your talents and gifts either. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to follow your aspirations. The time will come when the world will notice and will appreciate what you have to give. Others will see your heart in it and will thank you for staying true to who you are. 

Until then, keep creating. 

Allow your imagination to soar. Follow your vision. Be original and innovative. Be you. Do it not only when you write, paint, sing, dance, jot down your ideas, but in everything you do. Because without this fire, life fills up with materialistic dullness. And if you think you’ve lost your creativity or never had any, read my blog post about that too.

I want to finish with this quote by Pablo Picasso:

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

Pursue your gifts and share them freely – this will fill you up in return… if not your plate, your heart for sure. 

Visit Elena’s website: Five Minute Discovery

Find Elena Shelest on social media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon