When I was in grad-school, I had a group therapy instructor who was from Taiwan. The course content was interesting in of itself, but what made the class even more fascinating was my instructor’s unique cultural perspective. I specifically remember her talking about how she had never heard of someone being concerned about “sounding stupid” until she moved to the United States in her early 20’s. For the first few decades of her life, it had never dawned on her to worry about how she sounded when she talked, nor did it occur to her that others ever did so either.

The whole idea of sounding stupid simply wasn’t a part of her cultural upbringing, and when she first heard it being expressed in the U.S., she thought there was some sort of break down in translation. But there wasn’t. The words could be translated literally, which baffled her. How terrible, she thought, to worry about whether you are sounding stupid, smart, or somewhere in between. Her approach was to say what’s on her mind, be willing to make mistakes, and be thankful for the interaction.

As an American, I was all sorts of twisted. I couldn’t believe that the fear of sounding stupid was a cultural construct. It seemed like it was a natural part of the human condition. Nope, not the case. It was a cultural message that I had picked up and internalized, and for the first time, I realized that if I happened to be born in a different part of the world, this fear may have never crossed my mind.

It’s probably been 7 years or so since I took that course, but I still think about that particular lecture from time to time. To this day, I really appreciate my instructor’s refreshing perspective about saying what’s on your mind and being willing to make mistakes, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to narrow the focus to that last piece of advice—be thankful for the interaction. In fact, I think this might be the remedy to the “sounding stupid” phenomenon.

It seems quite obvious to me that the fear of sounding stupid stems from performance anxiety, social comparison, and excessive self-criticism. No wonder why anxiety disorders are on the rise and people feel more isolated than ever before. But we can work through this. We just have to figure out a way to think about human interaction differently, which is where gratitude comes into play.

Consider this. Instead of being so concerned about how we sound, what if gratitude was on the forefront of our minds when interacting with others? To lead with a sense of thanks would fundamentally alter our social experiences. It would take the edge off and reduce our need to sound smart, be liked, or to make the perfect impression. It would help us listen more and free up mental energy so that we are more likely to say what we want, how we want.

All we got to do is be thankful for the interaction! Okay, maybe I’m oversimplifying this. Then again, maybe not. Some may wonder what there is to be thankful for. Here are some ideas: to hear someone else’s perspective, curiosity, the opportunity to express yourself, to learn about someone else, the sharing of minds, another human being taking interest in you, etc. The list could go on and on.

So, here’s an experiment to try. The next time you interact with someone, approach the conversation with a sense of gratitude, and pay attention to what happens. Does the pressure fall away? Do you feel less constrained? Or maybe nothing at all? Regardless, give it a shot. Just for fun. If it works, we might be on to something.

Reflecting on Hope

I’ve been reflecting recently on the concept of hope and its value to humanity. Interestingly “hope” can take on different definitions depending on the human, so it is important for me to first be clear about what I mean.

By hope, I mean a genuine acknowledgement that growth is possible in some form or fashion, regardless of circumstance. Repeated acknowledgements of this kind can evolve into a hopeful attitude, but in my view, hope is not some sort of absolutist, rigid belief or specific claim about what the future holds. Rather, it is leaning into the possibility of progress and embracing the concepts of perseverance and resilience in the face of challenges.

My primary intention here is to offer a version of hope that is both rational and practical. All too often, we dull out the meaning in what otherwise can be useful, or even profound, ideas because perhaps they become too abstract, convoluted, or trivialized. Once this confusion of meaning takes place, our mental health can begin to falter.

We simply cannot allow this phenomenon to happen to hope. Of course, hope alone doesn’t solve anything. It must be coupled with action in order to make a real difference. However, I still believe hope is an independent and necessary psychological ingredient to overcoming setbacks and restoring clarity of mind.

The fact is we are meaning-making creatures, so I argue that without hope (or a comparable term), our meaning-making systems are at risk of irreparable damage when significantly threatened. Because it is an inherent condition of life that we will face such threats—crises will happen, people will die, communities will struggle— ideas such as hope are necessary to both preserve our mental stability and to sustain human progress, particularly when the most challenging situations arise.

We must be tactful about how we apply hope to our lives, though. I am not advocating for blind hope or any sort of dreamy worldview that denies reality. Clearly, there are times when hope should be redirected because acceptance towards an inevitable outcome is the healthier alternative. Yet the inevitability of an unfortunate outcome does not mean that all hope is defeated.

Going back to the definition I provided, the foundation of hope is the “acknowledgement that growth is possible.” So what does this look like in the midst of human misery? How do we find growth in tragedy? A couple of things come to mind. One, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is forever present, so the opportunity to learn and approach life with curiosity will always be there for the taking, no matter what. And two, “who do I want to be during times of struggle?”– one of the deepest questions a human being can ponder– can be put to the test during hardship. This perspective has enormous utility, as it puts significant control back in our hands and provides direction when we would otherwise be lost.

In other words, hope reframes experience. It creates a psychological fork in the road, where growth is a constant option. It also serves as a real world tool that can be applied to real life situations. If hope isn’t in your mental toolbox yet, I highly encourage you to consider it. No dogma, no leaps. Just a rational, practical ingredient to healthy living.

 

What is your mind’s default setting? Are you typically in the past, present, or future? Pay attention to this, and it won’t take long for you to uncover some clues.

In my counseling practice, I ask these questions all the time, and I cant recall a single client whose default setting is the present. Shoot, I’ll tell you straight up that I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation (a present-based psychological exercise) for 10 years, and my default setting STILL fluctuates between past and future.

In my observations, I have realized this: too much future tends to be associated with anxiety and worry; and too much past tends to be associated with depression and sadness (although this can vary depending on the situation). Through meditation, I have become much better at not attaching to these mind states. But outside of making a conscious intention to be in the present, my brain tends to automatically run back to the past and future all too easily, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

This makes we wonder, is a sustainable here and now mentality even possible? Can the present become our default setting? I’m not exactly sure, but I lean towards the negative on this issue.

My reasoning has to do with our neurological hard-wiring. Planning for the future and learning from past mistakes were essential components of our evolutionary history. In large part, the human ability to contemplate the past and future allowed our species to thrive, so it makes sense that a strong memory and imagination led to a past/future default setting. Given the innate nature of these brain capacities, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to permanently switch our default setting as a species, nor do I think we’d really want to if it meant getting wiped out by other more physically dominant predators before you and I ever had a chance to exist.

Now, there are some people who claim to have an exceptional ability to keep their minds rooted in the present, but in all the cases I have studied, these individuals spend years in meditation and/or prayer, are isolated from society, and tend to opt out of facing the challenges of everyday people. To most of us, this lifestyle is unrealistic and utterly impractical for obvious reasons.

But this definitely doesn’t mean we can’t incorporate the here and now mentality in our lives on a more frequent basis. I contend that this is totally possible and well worth the effort. Although our minds will inevitably wander back to its default state– because that’s what minds do– there are some practical ways to access the present moment and break up the seemingly endless pattern of the past/future setting.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, has spent decades studying psychological flow, which in basic terms means being “in the zone.” Think about when you are truly engaged at work, in conversation, playing a sport, or doing a hobby of some sort. When the conditions are right, you are able to access a highly focused state where you are completely absorbed by the present task at hand. Specifically, when a given activity has the right balance between one’s skills, level of challenge, and intrinsic reward (pursuing something for its own sake), a here and now mentality can take place. So to better access this flow state, become aware of the impact these conditions have on your moment to moment experience.

Another strategy is to ask yourself more present-based questions. For example, what am I feeling? Where am I at? What am I doing? What’s something in my immediate environment that I haven’t really noticed before? How can I make things a little bit better in my life right now? Orienting yourself to the present in this way will help you access a source of valuable information that would have passed you by otherwise, and it’s extremely effective at breaking up one’s tendency to dwell in the past and future.

As I mentioned before, mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to improve your ability to be in the here and now. The process is as follows: sit up straight in a chair; pay attention to the natural flow of your breath; and when your mind wanders away, just bring your attention back to the breath with an attitude of openness and non-judgement. Now this may feel like a giant waste of time, but that is just the chatter of the past/future default setting. With time, it will be easier to let go of thoughts that have historically kept you stuck, and you will be more available to attend to the present.

Finally, if nothing I’ve suggested here works, just pour yourself a drink.

In all seriousness, my best advice is to be patient with any here and now strategy you try. Pursuing instant gratification will only lead you astray in this journey and, eventually, more distant from the present than ever before. Remember, little by little becomes a lot.

Let me start by saying I support, in principle, taking things personally. People who do so are showing that they care, that they are able to advocate for themselves, and, most importantly, that they are willing to feel and express. This takes courage, which I respect.

So why do we so often try to deny it? Why cave when someone says “don’t take it personal?” The reflexive response often involves emotional belligerence and denial: “I’m not taking it personal! It’s just blah blah when you blah blah BLAH!!” Or something to that effect. Maybe add in a few curse words and insults to improve the example’s accuracy.

However, one alternative is owning it without a speck of shame: “Yeah, you’re exactly right, I am taking it personally, and here’s why.” And then proceed to offer an honest and skillful explanation as to why you are taking something to heart. Cool, calm, collected… You got this.

Again, it’s okay. Things matter to us, and that should be validated. After all, how can one live a meaningful life if things don’t matter (and sometimes a whole lot)?

Now this brings me to something that I’m generally not a big fan of– telling someone not to take things personally or to quit being so sensitive. Statements like these almost never help, and usually makes things worse as outlined above.

Some folks may disagree, but it’s difficult to control what you feel and even harder to express it. So why not try to create a conversational environment where one can do their best thinking and work through their emotional experience?

Invalidation is simply a non-starter. That stated, you don’t have to validate bad behavior or disrespectful speech. For example, let’s say someone takes something personally (regardless of intentions) and acts hatefully towards you. That’s not cool, and you have every right to communicate that.

But instead of placing emphasis on emotional invalidation, point out the problem behavior while also expressing curiosity in how the person feels. The likelihood of the situation turning out well still won’t be 100%, but this approach will certainly improve the odds.

Okay, a few more points here, then we’ll call it a day. I think it is important for me to note what I am not saying in this post. A brief proof reading of what I’ve written thus far has led me to believe I should smooth out some possible confusion.

I am not saying it is impossible to take things too personal or to be overly sensitive. This phenomenon totally exists, and there might be occasions where it is appropriate to point that out directly. I still believe, however, that this should be done with tact and in a way that helps the person do their best thinking. This means that asking measured questions and promoting an atmosphere of understanding are vital nutrients to a productive conversation.

Also, I am not saying considering another person’s intentions, letting go, and de-personalizing certain situations should be disowned as coping mechanisms. Of course these strategies can be useful.

Rather, my concern is that we are living in a culture where people are already struggling to figure out what they really care about and how to convey that in a coherent way. And because caring is inherently personal, we risk numbing the human heart and mind if we disparage the most psychologically meaningful aspects of our individual reality.

So panning back out, here are the takeaways. Taking things personally is okay. Don’t deny it. Own it, even when you are being criticized. If you’re on the other side of the interaction, validate personal feelings. And for all parties involved, speak skillfully.

Thanks for reading.

“Do your best.” We’ve all heard this message in some form or another. Seemingly cliche, but it’s also super meaningful if you think about it.

Of course, we should not take “do your best” literally. That’s only possible a small percentage of the time. The law of averages says that we are statistically most likely to do our average.

For me, the real meaning is to give reasonable, consistent effort. Try to get better. Show up. Get to work.

I have thought a lot about cliches like this. There is a reason that “do your best” is a common piece of cross-cultural wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Parents, teachers, coaches, and counselors preach it all the time. The challenge is that we have to learn to de-cliche the cliche, which means that we have to think about what this phrase is really telling us and how we can begin to incorporate it in our life.

Let’s break down “do your best” a little further. The truth is that slacking off is always an option. It gives us an excuse (“I wasn’t really trying”), and it makes us more likely to indulge in momentous pleasures, while forgetting about the long-term challenges and delayed gratification associated with progress. Progress requires effort. Depending on the level of progress you’re after, a ton of effort could be needed. For other endeavors, not so much. It’s up to you what you want to put in.

Another operative word in this cliche is YOUR. I like that. You own “best.” It’s YOUR best. You get to decide what that looks like. As I mentioned, best isn’t literal. Perhaps it can be viewed as a symbolic aim. Something that keeps you going, keeps you hungry, keeps you growing.

The whole point of this ramble is that when someone says to you, “do your best,” take them seriously. Don’t look at the person like, “get out of here with that cliche nonsense.” Think about those words of wisdom. Use it as an opportunity to ponder your effort, your potential, whether you’re being too damn hard on yourself, or whether you are comparing yourself to others too much. Remember, you make the meaning. Do your best.