Held prisoner by your painful past or fearful future

When you get a stomach virus, your mind immediately goes to one of two places.

The first is paranoia. Okay, where did the sickness come from? Maybe the fish from last night? Or that snot nosed toddler at the holiday party who coughed all over me? Is it covid coming to get me?

The second place that our mind goes to is worry. Alright, what does this mean for me? What about my meeting tomorrow? Will I have to spend the next three days in bed?

And yet, neither of these thoughts does us any good. They don’t change the fact that we feel like death right now.

Robinson’s research on addiction shows how our genes carry an evolutionary heritage that leaves us with rumination and worry about what could have been in the past and about what is yet to come. It’s the vigilance that helped our ancestors survive everything from predators to diseases to rival tribes.

But that was eons ago. Today, the threats of attackers aren’t as severe as they were in the caveman days. Which means our rumination, either forward or backward, aren’t especially helpful. We gain nothing from our obsession to dwell on the past or the future.

In fact, virtually all our negatively valanced emotions are not rooted in the present.

Worry, fear, regret, shame, denial, each of these are stuck in either yesterday or tomorrow.

Whereas joy, gratitude, love, compassion, acceptance, surrender, each of these are grounded in right now.

It’s actually quite an elegant litmus test for the usefulness of mind patterns. We ask ourselves, is this thought taking my mind to a plus one, a minus one, or zero?

Not that we shouldn’t prepare for the future and reflect on the past, but when it’s at the expense of losing contact with right now, we suffer.

The good news is, there are some people out there who allow each moment to be what it is. Who believe there is no failure or mistake. And that whatever happens, happens.

Our job is to stay close to them. Because maybe their mindfulness will rub off.

When was the last time worrying made you feel better?

There is a way out of this that we can’t quite see now

All hurt has a beginning, middle and end.

In the moments when it life seems on the brink of falling apart, our faith really can walk us through the hard times.

But we have to be willing to reframe our understanding of the word. Because faith one of those loaded terms. Think of all the social, cultural and doctrinal baggage that weighs it down.

Faith has been misused, abused and wholly misunderstood, both in religion and in culture. To the point that we have become allergic to it. It’s a trigger word that causes a legitimate emotional or even physical reaction in people.

And yet, faith is such a beautiful, useful, life giving word. Tillich’s inspiring text on the topic explains that faith, as the ultimate concern, is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is not a movement of a special section or a special function of man’s total being, is the most centered act of the human mind.

And that’s merely one way to look at it. There are as many definitions of faith as there are people to have them.

The point is, in our times of suffering, each of us ought to find a way to reintroduce faith to ourselves, to unload the term of its symbolic weight, and to use it to navigate life’s inevitable lows.

Here are a few of my own interpretations of this word, all of which have been useful and soothing to me during times of distress.

Faith is our ability to be where we are and to accept that where we are is where we are supposed to be.

Faith is trusting that there is a tomorrow that can turn it all around.

Faith is training our minds to automatically state the cause of our suffering not permanent, pervasive or personal; it’s not a special misfortune which has come my way, it’s just life doing its thing.

Essentially, faith is an exercise in imagination for me. It’s an invitation to employ my greatest weapon, my creativity, for its highest purpose. Which is to imagine that there is a way out of this pain that I can’t quite see right now.

This brand of faith is one of many tools that equip me to survive the physically debilitating flood of worries that will come rushing in from time to time.

As if to whisper, wow, this things really hard for you right now, but even as tragically insurmountable as the hurdles seem, it’s going to be okay.

Or maybe it’s not. And that’s okay too.

If you had your own definition of faith in the universe and in your future, how would pain be different?

How can we make this situation work to our advantage?

Hiring positive people is the great force multiplier for any organization.

One, because they’re enjoyable to work with and their energy is infectious to the rest of the team.

And two, because positive people tend to be more solution oriented. They’re better at coping with the inevitable adversity of running a business. Their personalities are designed to flourish in the harsh soil of extreme uncertainty.

Imagine you run a small software company. The product market fit has been established, the user base has reached critical mass, and several industry publications have started to take notice of your brand.

But your employees are spread way too thin, each taking on the burden of two or three other roles that aren’t their primary responsibility.

Clearly, the time has come to hire a staff person to keep your house in order and free up the team to focus on their highest value activities.

Question is, whom would you rather have manage this process? Someone who brainstorms possible ways to fix the problem, or someone who gets stuck in the complaints of why the problem exist in the first place?

Someone who immediately underscores the upside of each situation, or someone who shoots down every idea in the suggestion box?

Positive people will win out every time. Not because their optimism increases the company’s success, but because their optimism increases the company’s field of vision, which allows the team to better notice the opportunities that lead to success.

Positive people find the solution that leads to the solution. Their mindset may not affect the outcome, but it does affect the experience.

In the business world where outcomes often elude us, improving the process is about the best you can ask for. That’s what makes positivity such a force multiplier. It amplifies effort, increases potential and probability of winning. It gives the company two feet to stand on so they can keep moving the story forward.

Remember, negativity keeps you focused on your problems, whereas positivity finds solutions to them.

If your team is in growth mode, filter out any job candidates who aren’t masters at saying yes to life.

Only hire people who decrease negativity by adding possibility.

Who drains your team’s energy and optimism?

Thanks to our coefficient of specialness

The fear that we are merely one of many, rather than one of a kind, is completely normal.

Who doesn’t have at least some desire to be special?

Some of us, myself included, are what psychologists would call insistent individuals. We build our identity around how unlike everyone else we are. Our need to feel different and special and fundamentally different from others is our primary motivational driver.

This personality trait has its benefits, especially in the world of work. Getting noticed, getting hired, getting promoted, getting famous, all of these accomplishments happen at an accelerated pace, thanks to our coefficient of specialness. 

But the paradox of uniqueness is, our motivational need to express it also isolates us. We work so hard to stand apart from everyone else, that the loneliness can’t help but grow into a problem. Even if we do crave deep, intense, human connection, nobody really understands us quite as intimately as we understand ourselves, so what’s the point?

Not that we shouldn’t take pride in our unique gifts, but perhaps if we stop trying to emphasize every little thing that makes us different from, and better than, everyone else, and instead focus on what we all have in common, we might feel less alone in the world.

This is one of the best parts about wearing a nametag every day. It’s proven to me that love isn’t to be found in a special label that makes me feel more separate from others, but rather, found in the label’s ability to connect me with others on a deeply human, analog, face to face level.

The phrase exquisite ordinariness comes to mind.

Considering the epic proportions of isolation, loneliness, and disconnection in the world, it’s quite a sticky solution.

How many people did you go out of your way to ignore yesterday?

With his gaze still fixed on the past

Everyone has that one friend who sees too much.

Someone who looks too far into everything. Someone who makes spontaneous inferences based on observing a single interaction. Someone who compulsively raises and weighs the potential explanations for why things happened to them.

It’s quite exhausting to be around. Listening to your friend tumble down the rabbit hole of useless rumination over a one word text message from some guy she barely knows, you can’t help but think, wow, you desperately needs some upside down ankle shaking.

But this behavior is nothing new. Philosophers have been warning us about these mind traps for centuries.

Seneca said that we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Shakespeare said that there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Dostoyevsky said to think too much is a disease.

All of them are correct. We have to be careful not to get too trapped inside our own heads. Because when we insist on superimposing meaning onto every bloody mundane moment of our life, then life’s fundamental significance may never reveal itself to us.

Degeneres makes a cheesy but precise joke in her latest comedy special about this very tendency:

People are always looking into things and looking for signs about what things mean. Like for years, every time I looked at the clock, it was eleven past eleven. And every time, and I started wondering, well, what does this mean? For me it was a dead battery.

This tendency is deeply human. Swimming through this pointless black chaos called life, we’re all seeking validation that we’re on the right path. We’d all love someone to tell us how everything works and why everything hurts.

But there’s a fine line between healthy curiosity and neurotic fixation.

When we start over analyzing every interaction of our lives, finding nuance where there is none, looking too far into things for messages and signs that simply aren’t there, building these relationships inside our heads, the habit mutates from reflecting upon ourselves to obsessing over ourselves.

Remember, this situation isn’t as important as your anxiety says it is.

How will you save yourself from the endless and fruitless struggle to understand everything?

What happens when you’re too resilient

From an evolutionary perspective, an adaptive trait is a behavior or physical characteristic that enables or enhances the probability that they will survive.

For example, humans sweat to regulate their body temperature and endure long periods of physical movement. This adaptation allowed prehistoric humans to excel at hunting. They could jog after large prey under the midday sun until the animals eventually died from exhaustion.

But the paradox of evolution is, even adaptive competencies can become maladaptive if we take them to the extreme.

The trait of resilience comes to mind. Because we now live in a world where experts are telling us that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent, but the passionate combination of grit and perseverance and tenacity.

Which isn’t untrue. There is no doubt that resilience is a highly useful in the face of trauma. But any overused strength can quickly invert into a weakness.

Voltaire famously asked this question in his book on optimism:

Is there anything stupider than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?

It reminds me of my own misguided resilience, a trait that has backfired in both my personal and professional lives. From former lovers to a potential job prospects, being someone who didn’t take no for an answer might have felt noble and romantic to me, but it wasn’t producing results.

Quite the opposite, in fact. My resilience in the face of rejection, aka, bouncing back like a child’s inflatable clown, only worsened my chances of being picked. There came a point of diminishing returns where bowing out, letting go and moving on would have actually left me in higher standing than continuing to showing up at people’s front door with my tongue hanging out.

Grit is useful until all those small, loose particles of stone and sand get caught in other people’s eyes.

And so, any of us could find ourselves in a situation where we are too resilient for our own sake. One way to assess the potential downsides of this adaptation is to ask a few questions. 

Are you so resilient that you’re overly persistent with unattainable goals?
Are you so resilient that you fail to find the root of your problem and seek help to solve it?
Are you so resilient that your ego is writing a check your body can’t cash?
Are you so resilient that you’re missing the signals telling you not to continue your pursuit?
Are you so resilient that you’re unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances?

Remember, even adaptive competencies can become maladaptive if we take them to the extreme.

It sounds counterintuitive, but perhaps if you were less resilient, you would be more likely to improve your circumstances.

Do you need to bear down and push through and grind it out, or do you need to let go and switch directions?

But don’t you know how important my projects are?

You don’t suffer from workaholism, the people in your life do.

People who overindulge in their careers often do so at the exclusion of their personal relationships. Wedded to their work, they have no time left over for others. Loved ones are left with crumbs. Emotional leftovers. Whatever remains of the day that trickle down their collar.

Ask anyone who knew me in my twenties, they’ll verify the collateral damage this addiction can cause.

And let’s not overlook the suffering of the actual people workaholics work with. They get the worst of it.

Robinson’s depiction in his renowned book is spot on. They’ll drive colleagues crazy with their nitpicking and inability to let things go. When others are ready to move on, they’ll hold them back with their overanalyzing, taking ideas apart, thinking them through from every angle, getting bogged down in the details and sending things back to committee fifteen different times.

No wonder step nine is to make a list of all persons you have harmed, and to become willing to make amends to them all. Our friends, family members and coworkers have suffered enough. They deserve to be apologized to.

Meanwhile, the workaholic’s justification for this pattern of behavior comes from a place of profound grandiosity and ego. It’s best summarized with a question:

Don’t you know how important my projects are?

Which is code for, the world will crumble to pieces and my incompetence will be revealed, unless this email goes out, right now, in the middle of my grandmother’s funeral.

That’s addiction for you. You’re a piece of shit around which the whole world revolves.

What’s needed, ultimately, is a deepening of empathy. Not thinking less of ourselves and our work, but thinking of them less often.

Remembering to consider how our behaviors might negatively affect people in our lives.

All work and no play not only makes us dull boys, it also makes the people we love lonely, exhausted and resentful.

Is your focus on task completion causing you to disregard other people’s feelings?

Flexibility is a form of generosity

Working at a startup offers no shortage of opportunities to be flexible.

On any given day, you might be asked to do any number of unexpected things. Here’s a list from my own work experience.

Reprioritize on the fly when project timeline suddenly gets cut in half.

Jump right in on challenging tasks where you have zero direct experience.

Move workstations to the other side of the office so team collaboration flows better.

Rework your brand positioning in all company communications as the brand mission evolves.

Go all hands on deck for three straight days to triage new piece of legislation that has clients squirming in their seats.

Drop everything you’re doing for thirty minutes to help the team troubleshoot bugs in a new product launch.

Update all copy across multiple platforms to reflect a new brand initiative.

Double down on public relations efforts to capitalize on an overnight media crisis.

Don’t remember reading any of that in the job description.

But as disruptive and frustrating as these types of changes are, what’s your other option? Ignoring them? Going rogue and doing your own thing? Being stubborn and holding your ground just to be right?

Good luck with that.

One interesting way to frame the experience of change is to consider being flexible as a form of generosity. Trusting that when you are willing to accept the marketplace reality, when you are willing to adapt and maneuver your way to something new that works better for the team, that’s actually a gift to the people around you.

Personally, telling myself this story makes the experience of change more meaningful and less stressful. Even if nobody else views my flexibility as generosity, that’s okay.

Channeling my grandiosity into a useful channel helps me get through the day.

Do you confront every obstacle with flexibility and patience or with an aggressive reaction?

You can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us.

Whatever event went down, whatever thing turned out to be too much, too soon and too fast, it was just the trigger.

Vanderkolk, the foremost physician on the subject, writes that trauma is the imprint that event left on our mind, brain and body.

The thing is, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival, deep below our rational brain, is not very good at denial. After long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger, mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones, which precipitate unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations and impulsive and aggressive actions.

Even if it’s been months or years after the original experience.

If you ever found yourself suddenly and massively depressed, hyper aroused, manic or panicked, this might sound familiar. It’s likely that you were experiencing some kind of echo from a previous trauma. Happens to people all the time.

In the first world war, back when we gave it names like shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue, gross stress reaction and war neurosis, psychologists reported that many veterans had a worsening of their post traumatic stress symptoms much later in life, often being triggered by major life changes like losing their job or a family member.

Apparently, that’s how our brains work. Every loss triggers the pool of grief.

One memorable panic attack of my own comes to mind. A writer friend was conducting a seminar nearby my office, so she invited me to hang out in the back and watch. Sounded good to me.

Within five minutes of her presentation beginning, the room started caving in. Fear soaked my back, my heart was racing like mad and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. \

Wow, I need to get the hell out of here, right now.

By the time I was out the door and halfway down the block, it occurred to me that the previous trauma of my workaholism as a public speaker had been reactivated. Even years later when my career as an employee the corporate world was well underway, the imprint that those ten entrepreneurial years left on my mind and brain and body was still there.

Like a match waiting for a spark.

Some evolutionary survival mechanism inside told me, alert, you are not safe here, run, run, run.

Lesson learned, the body doesn’t forget, even if we do. We’re never out of the woods completely. Just because we have some physical distance from our trauma, doesn’t mean it’s entirely resolved.

The Eagles sang about the greatest hotel in rock and roll history:

You can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Some debate that the lyric was a reference to a satanic cult, some say it was a callout to drug addiction, some claim it was a shout out to the negative effect of financial regulations on investment, and others believe it depicts leaving a service provider or social media network.

My opinion is, he’s singing about trauma. We all have our own version of it. And though we may be able to reclaim ourselves back from our own shell shocked experience, there will always be a part of us, however small, trapped there. 

What song of trauma might be being replayed in your nervous system?

It’s not reality, it’s just the shit that we think

Each of us is compelled to do things by inner thoughts and feelings that may or may not be helpful.

As such, each day brings us a chance to either deepen our sense of inner peace by thinking thoughts that serve us, or deepen our sense of anxiety by jumping on the hamster wheel of rumination.

It all depends on what kind of relationship we have with our own mind.

Is your ego or your reptilian brain telling you stories that are only making you more anxious? You’re not alone. For many of us, it can seem like there is too much time to think, and too many disturbing thoughts on which to dwell.

And it can feel impossible to step out of the anxiety cycle.

If that’s the case for you, the key practice is learning how to use your gift of attention to just watch your thoughts floating by. Here are several visualizations that have been helpful for me over the years.

Pretend it’s an open door, let the thoughts come in and let them go.

Smile at your thoughts the way you would at the antics of a child.

Think of thoughts as weather patterns that have a beginning, middle and an end.

Imagine your thoughts as leaves falling trees, landing in the water and floating downstream into the ether.

There’s no one right way to do it. There are as many visualizations as there are anxious people to generate them. The goal here is not to suppress anything, but to become aware enough of your thoughts and emotions to see when there is a choice to be made.

This practice helps you govern your anxiety by noticing and naming it, but then turning away from it and refusing its seductive invitation to enter your dark interior.

But don’t expect it to work the first time, or even the first hundred times. It takes a while to unwind our maladaptive and faulty connections.

You have to think of it as making an investment in your future peacefulness. Trusting that eventually, you will accrue enough mindfulness credit in your account to pay those anxiety bills the minute they’re delivered to your inbox.

For now, just remember this. When you start using words like always and never, that means your mind is messing with you.

But it’s not reality, it’s just the shit you think.

How will you err towards thinking thoughts that serve you?

Sign up for daily updates


Daily updates straight to your inbox.

Copyright ©2020 HELLO, my name is Blog!