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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether insecurity can be helpful, and my conclusion is that it can be. We don’t have to let our insecurities erode our well-being and psychological stability. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The problem is we are led to believe there is something “wrong” with us when we feel insecure. As a result, our instinct is to try to rescue ourselves with forced confidence, and if that doesn’t work, we run and hide. These aren’t long-term solutions, just temporary band aids that will eventually fall off and leave the wound exposed. So, what else can we do? My suggestion is making your insecurities your friends.
First of all, we have to realize that our minds are hardwired to be sensitive to perceived threats. It’s how we evolved to identify and solve problems quickly. However, we are unfortunately operating with mental machinery that is hundreds of thousands of years old. So often times, the primitive areas in our brains are activated when we begin feeling insecure about modern day threats (speaking in public, starting a new job, going on a date, etc.). The problem is that the primitive brain can be unnecessarily dramatic–for all it knows you are about to get eaten by a bear.
Think of one of your drama king or queen friends. God love em, but man, can they be dramatic sometimes. Still, they serve a purpose and are a part of your team, even though you can’t take EVERYTHING they say too seriously. This is the type of internal friend your insecurities can be. People who are prone to being dramatic are usually quite interesting and are always a work in progress, and if you think about it, that’s kind of what your insecurities are like too– quite interesting and a signal that something about you is a work in progress. That’s really it. Not so threatening after all, right?
So, here’s an idea on how to approach your next moment of insecurity. Instead of indulging in the accompanying thoughts and feelings, maybe you simply and kindly say to yourself, “thank you, brain friend, for the interesting feedback. I appreciate you letting me know that I have areas of improvement (AKA you’re human!).” And then, remind yourself that the very nature of this internal friend is to be a little over the top, so you don’t get overwhelmed. In other words, the strategy here is to extract what’s important, and throw the rest away.
To wrap this post up, we are all insecure to some extent, but how we relate to those insecurities is what matters most. If forcing yourself to feel confident or hiding from your insecurities works for you, stick with that. If not, I hope you find some of these ideas useful.