Before You Choose Your New Year’s Resolution…

Motivation is the fuel needed to keep us tackling our goals. Learn how to unearth this often ephemeral feeling.

Each year we see the psychic slate wiped clean for us, the calorie count set back to zero, the goals written neatly at the top of our agendas in colorful, promising ink. Whether it’s learning a new language or giving up nail biting, a New Year brings a highly marketed opportunity to dazzle us with motivation, to “improve”, to grow, to challenge ourselves, to be the best version of ourselves.

But something happens just days or weeks after each New Year. The shiny can-do determination felt in the Auld Lang Syne song (thank you, Dougie MacLean) sounds distant, the once heady anticipation of a New Year looks daunting on the other side, the conviction felt with the palpable count down around the world now seems like a pipedream, the reality of Time marching on with the same challenges before the magical New Year’s Eve.

So how can we sustain motivation long past the bells and whistles of New Year’s Eve? How can we keep chugging along towards the very things we find downright hard? How can we stave off the onslaught of intoxicatingly-convenient-and-must-less-painful excuses in the weeks and months to come?

Many are familiar with the baby step philosophy: taking those small steps that lead to big changes. And while that works fantastically well for many, this doesn’t address the core issue for sustained change: motivation.

My book, The Friendship Diet, explores the metaphor of food and personal relationships: we are starving for affection, we can fall prey to Diet Coke denial with the people we love, we find certain things our partner says or does distasteful. But the diet isn’t only about our romantic relationships. It’s about knowing our hunger, the why behind the things we do with everyone from our partner to our boss.

So, before you ring in the New Year with your mental (or physical) to do list of resolutions, ask yourself a couple of important questions:

  1. Why do I want to do these things? (i.e., lose weight, learn Tai Chi, give up smoking, adopt a dog, take up gardening, etc.)
  • How will my life be different with these changes?

The why is the oxygen supply of motivation. The how challenges our assumptions and potential roadblocks.

For example, let’s say you want to lose weight.

The why may be because you want to look and feel good in your body.

How your life would be different requires you to get specific and real with yourself. It’s no longer enough to think in cliches—not if you want to stay motivated. The more detailed your list here, the more likely your goal will manifest.

So, imagine how a life with weight loss would look and feel. Maybe it’s easier to get in and out of a chair, or you’re no longer out of breath when you take the stairs. Maybe it’s feeling sustained energy throughout the day. Maybe it’s donating your former-sized clothing to Goodwill. Maybe it’s the healthy annual physical report from your internist.

I recently went through this exercise with a colleague regarding her goal of weight loss and the how of her resolution plan brought up a roadblock:

“I can’t give up my clothing. If I give it up, I know I’ll start putting on the pounds again.”

Going through the how caused my colleague to run smack into something she didn’t want to acknowledge. But if we don’t digest the why and how of what we want to change, we are unlikely to remain motivated. 

Thinking we can gain weight simply by giving away our former size is magical thinking. We are all susceptible to irrational logic like this when we delve into the potential landmine of how. The key is to recognize the mental panic for what it is (our brains valiant effort to protect us) and stay the course.

And the why behind our motivation offers a conduit to potential discomfort as well. After all, the reason behind wanting to lose weight might stem from a childhood memory of bullying and bear no reality on the present. My colleague can still hear the taunts of a kid in school call her “Pillsbury Doughboy.” By tuning into the why behind her weight loss goal, she gained awareness of the potential tricks our minds can play. 

“I can still remember my cheeks burning every time he called me that.”

Naming the why, dispels the false narrative. Naming the why allows us to better tackle the potential hurtles of the how (i.e., donating her now baggy clothes to Goodwill). Any negative emotion (i.e., shame) from the past does not need to journey with us into our present or future. And when we can change the feeling behind an experience, our resolution potential is limitless.

Wishing you and healthy and rewarding New Year:-)

Sheri

Want to Face Your Fear?

Most modern-day anxiety is a by-product of our ancient brains. Like the whac-a-mole game, the mind’s alarm system is doing what it’s designed to do. Discover what happens when you don’t play the game.

There are countless tips and tricks to consider when it comes to overcoming a fear. Everything from imaging exposure to the big “F” to taking it on the anxiety-producing source in increments.

Let’s say you have a fear of elevators. You might imagine pressing the button to the elevator, hearing the doors swoosh open, and stepping inside the machine, all while you remain at home. Or perhaps you stand in front of the elevator one day and the next, press the button to go on, observing any anxiety that shows up (i.e., a racing heart, sweaty palms, etc.) with each increased exposure.

Whatever tactic you choose, there are two things worth noting:

  1. You have to SIT WITH any discomfort to overcome said fear.
  2. The fear isn’t real.

Fear is generated by the thoughts we think based on the experiences we have. Fear is your mind playing tricks on you in order, (so the mind falsely, well thinks) to protect and help you survive.

There are those who love a scary horror flick and loathe the idea of public speaking. Yet both activities manifest some kind of adrenaline. It is the mind’s interpretation of each event that makes all the difference, determining which you perceive as fun and which as frightening.

The brain is an organ, no different than the heart or kidneys. It has a job. It thinks. Our ancestors depended on the mind to protect us, flooding us with flight-or-fight catecholamine activity to help us survive a grizzly bear heading toward us. 

But we are no longer living as our ancestors did. There are no wild beasts coming after us as we sleep in a field. Our brains, however, have not adopted to our modern-day world of indoor plumbing and central air. 

Our brains aren’t cruel. They are like puppies with a new chew toy. As Dr. Amy Johnson writes (author of Just a Thought):

Our minds are “a very smart machine that isn’t always wise, but it loves you.”

Fear can’t sit still when you face it. It changes form. The emotion we feel is real, but the thought behind it can change. You can talk to your busy mind as you would an overtired child whose had too much sugar:

“I know you [mind] think I’m in danger, but it’s really okay. I got this.”

If you sit long enough with the fear, the fear will morph into something new. The fear of touching an elevator button will change to the fear of getting on the elevator to the fear of allowing the elevator doors to close. Your mind will continue to generate new ways to protect you since that’s what a mind does.

Discomfort shows us “psychological experience is being mistaken for something solid, personal, and true…. When we get lost in our mind’s narrative and temporarily forget who-we-are, which we often do, we feel discomfort. Discomfort is the built-in alarm that alerts us to our misidentification.” Dr. Amy Johnson

Take comfort in the discomfort; allow your beautiful mind do what it is meant to do, knowing it is manufacturing worst-case-scenarios to unnecessarily protect you. Watch it compare, compete, create negative bias, warn, exaggerate, and sit with any negative sensations that may arise within your body. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you notice new fears pop up. Just like the original fear, your higher self knows they are all illusions.

*Source: Just a Thought: A No-Willpower Approach to Overcome Self-Doubt and Make Peace with Your Mind

Did You Hear Yourself?

Something as simple as paying attention to the words we frequently use can potentially alter our psychological and even physical states for the better.

Next week, my aunt will take a plane trip with her adorable eight-pound dog. For the past few months, the “meat” of our conversations has involved her dog:

“I’m so nervous. I’m not sure the dose is enough to make her [the Maltipoo] sleepy for the plane, but I don’t want to give her too much.”

“I’m worried she [Maltipoo] will get sick on the plane.”

“I’m scared TSA is going to change their ruling and say she [Maltipoo] weighs too much, and then they’ll make her go in with the luggage.”

My sweet aunt’s focus on her adorable canine is understandable. Yet, I wonder if she ever noticed the Robin’s egg blue of the sky in late August or the turning of the leaves in October. Chances are, her tapestry of fear and worry prevented her from enjoying the giggles of her grandkids, or the aroma and taste of her morning java.

Last week, I counted the number of times my aunt used words connoting fear around her dog. This was a 10-minute conversation. How many times did she utter fear-based language? 8. Here were her words: scared, anxious, anxiety, concerned, and worried. These were highlighted and interchanged with qualifiers like awfully, terrible, worst, and horrible.

My aunt is a kind woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. She cares, often so much so, that she loses sight of her own wellbeing. She literally loses her mind to the things we can’t control (i.e., the upcoming plane trip with her Maltipoo).

When we focus externally on the world around us, without taking stock of how we interpret it, we can lose our way. Hyper-focusing on the what ifs in our external world prevents us from appreciating where we dwell in the present.

Scientists have long written of our inability to multitask:

“We’re really wired to be mono-taskers, meaning that our brains can only focus on one task at a time….When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing 

two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching.” Dr. Cynthia Kubu

So, my aunt may look like she’s washing the dishes, or playing with her grandchildren, but she’s really not there. She is distracted by the what ifs, focusing on the very thing that is neither here nor in her control.

The topic of my aunt’s hyper-focus of what ifs is currently her dog, but the subject has changed over the years: a friend’s cancer diagnosis, the pandemic, the presidential race, personal finances—you name it, she’s articulated it in detail and at length.

Regardless of the topic, it is one steeped with those fear-connoted words above. The effect of those words on her psyche is powerful and ranges from insomnia to overeating.

There is a power we all possess in the way we interpret the world around us and the words we use. Even if my aunt doesn’t believe it, a simple shift in mindfulness, in focusing on what is literally in front of her, can help stave off her what if Doomsday scenarios. Since we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, wouldn’t it be better to notice the sound of the rain outside your window than the idea of something terrible happening in a future that hasn’t arrived?

Mindfulness helps us slow down and recognize the words we use both aloud and silently. Here’s a quick exercise to see mindfulness in action:

While you’re reading these words, become aware of your forehead. Is it tense or relaxed? Notice your shoulders, are they back or rolled forward, loose or tight? Take a moment to breathe into your forehead, your shoulders—even your jaw. 

How do you feel? Chances are, while you were focused on the activity above, you didn’t worry about feeding the dog, responding to an email, or second-guessing what you said to a colleague yesterday. You were blissfully present.

When we are present, we appreciate more, we slow down, we become aware of the words we and others use. Listening to ourselves and other—not just hearing but truly listening—is a powerful honing device for the soul.

 Source: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/science-clear-multitasking-doesnt-work/

The Gift of a New Year

Discover the WHY behind our hunger for a New Year

To say that 2020 was a challenging year is akin to claiming triple bypass surgery is a standard procedure. If someone were to enter our planet for the first time, while we might be inclined to hold their hand, inviting them to sit down as one would to see a therapist after the death of a loved one, where would we begin?? (Besides which, we can’t exactly touch this fictionalized visitor to our planet who really needs a mask–pronto;-)

The pandemic, the protests, the killer bees, the Nashville bombing—words just fail to articulate the unprecedented and harrowing past 365 days.

And yet, COVID-19 didn’t officially hit the worldwide stage until mid-March, so the mask-wearing, toilet-paper-fearing shortage, social-distancing, government-lockdowns weren’t experienced for a full calendar year.

And yet again, it feels like more than a year. After all, the Gregorian calendar began with the sudden and tragic loss of the beloved basketball player, Kobe Bryant on January 26th of the very year we are on the heels of bidding adieu.  

Any great loss plays with our sense of time. So, it’s no wonder that this year, our concept, our understanding of time seems to render us in a perceptual fog of sorts. As of this writing, 341 thousand Americans have died as a result of COVID-19; worldwide, the death toll is over one million.

Humankind is emotionally starving for a return to normal. Deep down, we wonder if we will ever return to normal. If we grow still, we wonder if our pre-COVID world was all rainbows and unicorns anyway. We revel in the silver linings found throughout this roller coaster of a year; we ask ourselves: What is normal anyway??

There is no magic switch that will turn on as we ring in this New Year. Writing 2021 on our academic papers, our checks, our contracts—none of this will stop the rising death toll, increase the limited ICU beds across the county or bring back our departed loved ones. 

So why do we need, more than ever before, to celebrate and welcome in 2021?

New Year’s is a symbol of hope, of a fresh start, of wonderful possibility. It represents turning a corner, closing a door, so we can open up a new one.

A New Year is a gift, an opportunity to try again. It is Time’s present of a new blank page. It is the closest Time offers to an actual restart button.

I encourage you to revel in the gift of possibility this New Year brings. May the symbolism and fact of a new calendar renew your spirit—and by extension, humanity.

The Gift of a Broken Pipe

Happiness can often be found in the least place you’d expect…

Earlier this week, my neighbor called me. 

“Sheri, there’s water coming out from your garage door. Are you home?”

No, I wasn’t home. It was also rush hour, that time of day when you can double the time it takes you to arrive anywhere.

“If you are okay with it, I’d like to call my plumber.”

You know it’s not good when your neighbor is eager to call a plumber on your behalf. 

“The water from your garage is spilling onto my side.

Fortunately, the plumber (Daniel Barrientos—professional and informative) arrived within 30 minutes of receiving my neighbor’s call. 

In order to determine the problem (broken PVC pipes) and implement a solution (new PEX pipes), I would need to go without water for 24 hours.

Going sans water for any amount of time is challenging, but not having water in the midst of a pandemic after working outside both that day and the next, well…let’s just say I wasn’t looking forward to the experience.

Yet losing access to water offered me two unexpected gifts: knowledge and appreciation. Here’s what I learned in those LONG 24 hours:

  1. A toilet requires A LOT of water in order to flush (1.6 gallons per flush—Source: SFGATE). 
  • PVC pipes are inexpensive and easy to work with, but they can only be used for cold water
  • PEX pipes are extremely versatile and temperature tolerant (Source: Olympus Insurance)
  • The PVC pipes on my home were repaired several times before by the previous owner, though never actually replaced

When the water finally, blessedly was turned back on 24 hours later, I started singing, literally singing. There was water to cook with, bathe with, wash my hands with, make coffee with, clean with—it was HEAVEN ON EARTH!

Did I want to experience 24 hours without fresh running water? Absolutely not. But the appreciation I felt after that first shower was a true gift. Washing my hands under running water was a gift. Throwing clothing into my laundry machine to wash felt luxurious. Blow drying my clean, soap-scented hair felt amazing and hearing the steady hum of the dishwasher once again rendered me on top of the world.

Maybe you are reading this considering a metaphorical or literal “broken pipe” in your own life. Sometimes, it’s the broken pipe that helps you feel whole again. Sometimes, we need to lose something in order to recall its invaluableness.

Our perception of life creates our reality. Prior to the broken pipes, I took water for granted, didn’t even notice it. It was only in its absence that I felt parched on every level for it; only with the limited supply in my drawn bathtub that appreciation for it grew.

Losing water, if only for a mere 24 hours, raised my appreciation for it tenfold. When we appreciate something, we are dwelling in a happy space. 

Wishing you a deep and far appreciation of this life and all of its gifts.

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.

The Validation Dish

There’s something I notice lately, something women tend to do more than men. Something girls tend to do more than boys. I’ve seen manifestations of this affliction most of my life: the apology without real cause, the explanation that is typically unnecessary, the quick laughter to mask the hurt. But it wasn’t until recently that I noticed a visual/auditory pattern as well: parenthetical statements.

Huh?

Hear me out. The other night, I was out with a group of women, and I noticed a regular pattern, subtle but distinct, to the banter of us. Statements like:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID, well, I think I haven’t felt the same.”

“I just want a man who is, you know, kind. I don’t need to care about his looks, not really, you know. I just want him to be, I don’t know, nice.”

“I told him I was still reading, so why did he turn off the light. That really pissed me off—that’s bitchy of me, probably it is, right? I don’t think he meant it to be mean, but I was reading in bed, so it’s like I don’t matter, right?”

You see what I mean?? I felt this out-of-body aha moment that night, noticing a specific kind of halting cadence to our statements, like a toddler learning to walk, but not quite ready to let go of the furniture.

I kept thinking, most men would articulate those sentences, sans those parenthesis—they would be the figurative toddler standing, teetering, falling and getting right back up without any need to grab onto a nearby chair!

Those same statements, uttered from the mouths of men might sound more like this:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID.”

“I just want a woman who is kind.”

“I told her I was reading, and she turned off the light. 

#3 would be a clear conclusionary statement or likely would not be articulated in the first place because our imaginary gentleman wouldn’t need the big V: validation.

If you are a man reading this, feel free to disagree. After all, this is an opinion- piece and I am speaking in generalizations. There are women out there who possess the confidence to speak without a barrage of caveats weighing down their sentences; there are men who throw pauses into their words like a trapeze artist on a balance beam!

It’s one thing to be uncertain and articulate that uncertainty. It’s another, more subtle yet dangerous thing to crave validation or worse yet, lack faith in yourself.

Here’s what I know:

My friend’s breathing is more labored post COVID.

My friend wants to meet a kind, nice man who she is attracted to and deserves to be attracted to.

My friend was pissed that her husband turned off the light when she was reading.

When we sit with how we feel, when we accept all of our emotions, we no longer feel the deceiving call for external validation.

Whatever your gender, I challenge you to pay attention today and notice how you speak, how the sentences form on your tongue and in your mind. Embrace your inner compass, without the need to justify, apologize or gain the approval of others.

 External validation is a hunger that never satisfies. Go within for approval and you’ll never starve.

The Gift of Discomfort

            When we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

My friend *Camile cried to me over the phone this past weekend. She suspects that her new husband is cheating on her. If her fears are correct, this would be her second marriage strained, if not destroyed, by infidelity.

Fact: Camile husband keeps an extra cell phone for his work as a doctor. 

Fact: Camile is not allowed to know the number or have access to this additional phone.

Fact: The two haven’t been intimate since COVID began…

Flash back to three years ago when Camile discovered her first husband (now an ex) sexting with his nurse. Once Camile caught him red-handed, her ex said he “wanted out anyway.” 

It’s worth noting that for month’s prior to Camile’s sexting find, she’d wanted to confront her then husband. But each time, the mere idea of broaching the topic made her queasy with discomfort.

Within months of Camile’s split from her ex, before the divorce was even finalized, she started dating the man who is now her current husband.

Tonight, as Camile broke down to me, I could hear the familiar tinkle of a glass that had accompanied our talks back in 2017.

“What are you drinking?”

It was a rhetorical question. My dear friend’s imbibing companion was always the same: Riesling.  While she isn’t much of a drinker, she does become a fan of the white grape wine whenever heartache arises.

Camile chooses wine in lieu of facing her pain. I tend to go for the chips and ice cream. Some of us choose inedible comfort food when a challenge of the heart grows imminent: gambling, smoking pot, retail therapy.

The last time I heard Camile drinking her beloved Riesling was during her divorce proceedings. Once her current husband entered the picture, I can’t recall her enjoying the beverage.

To avoid pain and suffering is human nature, but sometimes, the very thing we are trying not to experience actually prolongs if not worsens it. Camile never truly mourned the end of her marriage, never honored her feelings of anger and betrayal. Tonight, those lessons are knocking on her door again. 

What lessons are knocking on your door? What pain and heartache do you run from and subsequently continue to experience?

There is a gift in acknowledging everything from discomfort to heartache. If we don’t pause long enough to accept the gift, we run the risk of repeating pain in merely a new guise.

 While it sounds counter-intuitive, when we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.