A Request for Stories About Coping

Hello Friends,

I have the great privilege of teaching a special topics course in the fall semester about the ways that humans use communication to cope with loss and trauma. I am asking all of you bright and lovely people to help me locate stories that will help enhance the richness of our course.

Please suggest any stories you know that have lessons related to coping (e.g., hardship, adversity, resiliency, overcoming loss, etc.). I am primarily interested in collecting narratives (self-told stories) and myths or legends (stories about others that provide meaning). Additionally, stories from all cultural and religious contexts are encouraged. Even if you don’t know where to find or purchase the book or whether it’s been translated, please suggest it and I will look into it!

I have a few stories in mind already and a lot of the theoretical and methodological work that we will be covering. However,  I would love to include several exemplar stories as options for us to analyze during our class. You’re input would be greatly appreciated – thank you in advance! Please comment below or email me!

All my best,

Tiff

Resilience

For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve had this word – resilience – bouncing around in my head.

To me, it seems clear that humans are wired to be resilient. We are survivors.

Let me give you an example.

Every semester, I teach a basic public speaking skills course and I frequently give this talk about how it’s normal to feel nervous before giving a speech. In fact, you’ve probably heard the reference to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about people being more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying (and that’s actually true).

Your palms may get sweaty, your heart may race, your mouth may feel dry. These are all things that commonly happen when adrenaline is pumping through our veins. But why is it that something like simply giving a speech can cause an increase in adrenaline?

Adrenaline is our body’s physiological response to fear. When our brain tells our body that it perceives a threat – even if that perceived threat is giving a speech – our body’s response is to produce adrenaline. It gives us the stamina needed to cope with the perceived threat.

It’s our fight or flight mechanism. It’s a survival instinct.

It’s the same instinct that has allowed humans to lift cars off of their children or to outrun predators or fight back in order to survive.

Humans are survivors; we’re literally built for it. We’re resilient.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the current situation by drawing a comparison to the stress we are facing today with life-threatening situations, and the truth is, you might be right. My point here isn’t to debate how real the threat is. It’s about the perceived reality that we are all living; the immense stress under which many people are simply trying to survive.

In the past few days, I have had multiple students disclose varying degrees of mental distress, including panic attacks, loss of time, and general anxiety. I have heard many of the same stories over and over again about how much more work is involved in online coursework, how they are concerned about their ability to pay rent, how they are worried about their leases ending and not having a plan in place for moving, and how they feel incredibly alone in all of this. They’re stressed – to say the least – and so am I.

If you’re like me and you’re fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you may be feeling a bit less stressed than those who are currently out of work or those who must continue doing jobs that are essential, despite the potential risk.

And, to be clear, I really do consider myself fortunate. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is ideal. As many of you are probably finding out, teaching (or working) online requires a lot more effort. And spending most of the day in Zoom meetings can be really draining (here’s a great article that helps explain why). Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have all of the technology needed to operate well from home (I’ve crashed my Surface twice already) and you can begin to understand why it’s not really all that simple – for faculty, for students, and for others attempting to work from home.

The focus of today’s post is on offering some tips for coping with stress beyond simply surviving — in other words, how to be resilient. Some of these things have worked well for me and some are based on the ideas of others. As always, take what works for you and feel free to leave the rest. I hope you find some peace in all of this chaos.

Maintain connections. People are meant to be connected with others. It’s important to be a part of a community (or many communities) by staying connected with friends and family. While the physical isolation is a necessary precaution most of us are living, there are some ways to maintain relationships despite the physical distance. Schedule social events via Zoom (or FaceTime or House Party or another app) with friends or family. You can virtually meet with others for a coffee date or cocktails and simply catch up with each other. While it may not be at your favorite venue, the perks are that you can wear your favorite comfy cloths and you don’t need to find a babysitter (if you have tiny humans running around).

tilt shift photography of green mailbox

You could also go old school and actually take the time to pen a note and mail (yes, snail mail) someone a letter or card. You don’t even have to come up with something novel to say – you can copy down a favorite poem or quote or just write in giant letters, “I MISS YOU,” or sketch something or draw a doodle. The point is, most people (like pretty much every human I know) loves to feel like someone cares about them, and knowing you were thinking of them enough to send something through the mail will probably make their day.  

If you’re lucky enough to share your living space with others, simply being present doesn’t always translate to feeling connected with these individuals. Many of us live with children or elders or other roommates who are important to us, but may in some ways interrupt our ability to nurture relationships with others, especially partners. If you find yourself here, I know it’s hard. Be patient, things will return to normal eventually. In the meantime, try sending a text to the person across the room that says, “I was just thinking about you,” or “I love you,” or just “Hi :).” Try to take time to be alone with your partner if and when it’s possible, maybe early in the morning or late at night. Go for a walk together, watch a movie in bed (even if it’s just on your laptop), make a meal together, have a conversation. Leave notes for your partner where you know they will find them (like on their pillow or in their coat pocket). Be kind to each other.

Take time for wellness. I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s because I think it’s really important. This could be a great time to practice learning to listen to your body and what you need. Take breaks from work as often as you need them. I’m guilty of totally skipping meals because I’m so focused on what I’m doing, which is terrible for our bodies. If you find that you’re not great at taking breaks throughout the day, schedule them into your day or set an alarm (maybe every hour) to get up and stretch. Try to stay physically active by going for walks or doing home-based workouts (there are literally hundreds available for free on YouTube, including this restorative yoga video I made).

woman doing yoga meditation on brown parquet flooring

If you’re spending more time at home than usual, you may want to try out some new (or old) approaches for developing your own mindfulness practice, such as meditating, journaling, drawing, painting, etc. All of these practices can be great for helping manage anxiety, and you may just find you actually enjoy doing them. Take time to do things that bring you some joy. I’ve started baking again for the first time in years and it’s been fun. When I’m stressed, I sometimes find it difficult to focus on a task that requires a lot of mental energy like grading or writing, but baking (or organizing, or cleaning, or sorting, or whatever) can be an activity that allows me to feel productive without using a lot of mental energy (because I bake simple things like scones – this is totally not a home version of Nailed It!).

Getting adequate sleep is also really important, especially when we’re mentally stressed. If you are able to work from home, consider starting your day a little later than you typically would. To me, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a bit – it’s one of the perks of working from home and making your own schedule. If you find that you struggle to fall asleep at night, developing a bedtime routine can help you wind down. It may involve taking a bath, reading a book, turning down the lights, and limiting your phone use after a certain time. Again, do what works for you – no one knows you better than yourself.

Practice flexibility and adaptability. When there are so many unknown factors – like when social isolation will no longer be necessary, when a vaccine will be available, how our economy will recover, when we will be able to travel again – it’s important to keep an open mind and to practice flexibility. While it’s not easy to do, managing our expectations – as in, not having specific expectations about how or when things will change – can help us maintain a more positive outlook.

Additionally, realizing that even our day-to-day plans may falter under these circumstances and becoming adaptable  can help us develop greater resiliency. In a recent meeting (online, of course) with students in my research methods course, I encouraged students to take the path of least resistance in completing the course (let me clarify that this is not something I would typically say under normal circumstances). While I realize some of them had impressive plans for the remaining assignments, I wanted them to know that scaling back in order to better manage their time to complete their assignments (in my class as well as others) is completely okay.

The same is true for all of us. You may have had an awesome project planned for your students, or intended to work on a research proposal or to develop a new class, or maybe you were planning your wedding or graduation, or something else very meaningful, but it’s okay to let go of some of our expectations for right now. It’s okay to lessen the pressure we’ve put on ourselves. It is not a failure to do so, it is the ability to adapt under extraordinary circumstances. And, it doesn’t mean we must let go of that expectation altogether – we can simply put it on hold until later.

I encourage you to have compassion with yourself and with others.

Show some emotion. I realize that we live in a culture that does not often embrace the expression of emotion. In fact, after years of working in retail and being told that I needed to “grow a thicker skin,” I am now working to undo much of that effort and to become more in touch with my own emotions. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, fear – is vital to our ability to process this event. We are not robots and we were not designed to subdue our emotions. We are allowed to feel bothered by the events we are experiencing because they are bothersome.

woman touch rainy glass

I encourage you to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling about these current circumstances. Take the time you need to be sad or fearful or angry, and then, move forward. At the same time, I also encourage you to find joy whenever possible – perhaps in the fact that you can wear yoga clothes all day and you don’t have to put on shoes! (those are mine 🙂 ) – and to laugh when there is nothing else to be done. Realize that technology will fail sometimes. You may get kicked out of Zoom in the middle of your class or someone may flush the toilet in the room next to you when you’re talking to a student, and it’s okay. Laugh at the circumstances, at yourself, at life, and know that you are not in this alone in this.

Reach out for support. I know I’ve said this before, but if you find that you are unable to manage your stress on your own or if you fear that you could possibly harm yourself or others, please reach out for help. Many therapists are working from home at this time (including mine) and many are accepting new patients. While this may not seem ideal, there is a benefit to being able to chat with someone from the comfort of your own home. Please know that it is okay to lean on others when you are struggling. Sometimes just venting or talking through something can bring a lot of relief and I encourage you to reach out to a friend, family member, other trusted individual, or mental healthcare professional for help if you need it.

hands formed together with red heart paint

I hope you found some of these insights of use. Above all, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of showing compassion to others as well as yourself.

With much love,

Tiff

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). Building your resilience. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020). Coping with Stress. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/copingwith-stresstips.html

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/resilience/art-20046311

Photo Credits

Cover Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mailboxes Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Woman Doing Yoga Meditation Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Woman Touching Rainy Glass Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Hands With Red Paint Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

A Lifetime’s Worth of Experiences

Please be aware that this content discusses the subject of death, which may be a trigger for some people.

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, I recently experienced the unexpected loss of my young, 25-year-old brother, Alex. Since then, I haven’t felt much like writing. And, if I’m being completely honest, there were days that I didn’t feel much like living.

Today, I’m in a more peaceful state; filled with hope and a sense of purpose. This road hasn’t been easy and it’s not over. To some extent, I know I will always mourn the loss of my brother. I will always notice his absence at holidays, think of calling him and then remember he’s gone, relive the dreadful days that followed his death.

When he died, I felt like a part of me died too. And, I wondered if I would always feel this death within myself. What I’ve come to realize in the last few weeks is that this part of me can heal. It’s not that I will ever be exactly the same again, but I will be whole again.

So, I’m writing to you today to let you know that I will be back to writing again soon. I have so much to share – so many experiences – and I believe that every experience deserves to have its story told.

In the past year, I feel like I’ve consumed a lifetime’s worth of experiences. I began a career path in consulting, completed yoga training and started teaching yoga, lost my grandfather, wrote my dissertation, survived an attack, defended my dissertation and graduated, started a different career path as a full time faculty member, lost my brother, went to India – and that’s not even all of it.

I’m not the same person I was one year ago and I’m okay with that. So much has changed, it’s hard to imagine being that person anymore — it’s as if it’s hard to reconcile those two halves of myself as part of the same identity. I have more peace, more confidence, more assurance of my purpose, more empathy, more compassion; I don’t want to go back. I’m grateful for my experiences because they’ve shaped me into the person I’m becoming.

I recently shared this quote with one of my yoga classes and it’s becoming a sort of mantra for me:

“If you are grateful for where you are,

you gotta respect the road that got you there.”

 -Cleo Wade

I will leave you with this thought today, but know that I will be back soon with many stories to tell.

In the meantime and as promised, here is the link my dissertation free of charge (though you shouldn’t feel an obligation to read it – do what you wish!): “I Will Be the Leader”… If you just want to skip ahead to the stories, go straight to Chapter 4, which starts on page 73 (page 87 of the pdf).

With love,

Tiff

Photo Credit:

Yellow Butterfly, Photo by José Ignacio García Zajaczkowski on Unsplash

Facing Down Fear

Due to violent content, please be advised that this material could be a trigger for some people.

It was just over four weeks ago that I was attacked while I was out for a run.

I’m okay.

This was scary — very scary — but I walked away virtually unharmed. I had a fat lip and a sore shoulder for a few days.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that this happened to me and that I was fortunate enough to just walk away.

The perpetrator of this crime is currently in jail. The intent of this post is not to talk about him, but rather to share how I think being prepared for something like this is exactly the reason that I am okay.

(If you really want to read up on the case, you can view the local news report here)

Writing this post has been more difficult than I anticipated it would be. It’s a bit like tearing off the scab on a wound. After finally starting to sleep well again, I’ve begun having nightmares since starting this post. A very good friend pointed out that this may be a sign that I’m not ready to write about the event yet, and I agree. However, I also think writing about this could be therapeutic for me. And part of me feels like if I don’t write it now, I likely never will.

The purpose of this post is to share what I think helped me so that others can, perhaps, learn from my experience. Doing this would be quite difficult without actually discussing the details of the event. That said, I’m going to give you a full run down from start to finish with the details I think are most important to include. Then, I’ll get into some advice based on this experience and the advice of others.

Before I begin, I want to be really clear about the fact that the content I’m including here is not at all intended as a guide for preventing bad things from happening. We all know that’s not possible. Life is unpredictable and scary things happen all of the time, even in places we don’t expect them. My goal here is to help us all be a little bit better prepared in the event that something does happen. While my hope is that you never have an experience like this, I believe having this knowledge for yourself or for a friend could be potentially meaningful.

In the summer months, I prefer to run after dark because it’s generally too hot to run safely in the heat of the day. I know I will be criticized for this, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with running after dark (and I still don’t). It’s really normal for me to go out between 9 and 9:30pm, once the sun has set, and run for 60-90 minutes. In fact, I’ve walked this same route a few times since the incident at approximately the same time of day (with a partner) and have found that there are (still) a lot of other people out walking or running or biking at this time of night.

The trails I run and the neighborhood around my house are mostly well lit and well populated areas. I’ve run this particular trail hundreds of times and I am always very aware of my surroundings. I keep my music turned down at a low volume so that I can hear what’s happening around me. I notice if something’s different or out of the ordinary (for instance, if there’s new construction or if a house has recently been painted). There are a couple of spots on this trail that are more remote and hidden from the view of houses and roadways where I always have my phone out and ready to dial for help if needed. (Because I’m kind of a cautious person.)

On the day this occurred, I had been out for about an hour and was only a block from returning to my house. I was cooling down, so I was walking at this point. I heard a bike come up behind me and I stepped to the right side of the sidewalk so they could pass. I turned and looked over my left shoulder to acknowledge the person (because I always do) and I was thinking to myself something along the lines of, “Oh, it’s just a kid on a bike.” I didn’t perceive this person as a threat even after I noticed him behind me.

As I was looking at him, he extended his right arm out and hooked it around my neck. He threw his body onto me, knocking me to the ground and trapping me underneath of him. It’s so strange to write out the details of this sequence now — as in, how was this physically possible? It was so fluid — it was as if it happened in slow motion.

Even as my body hit the ground, my brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me. I kept thinking, “You could be a student in one of my classes, what are you doing?” Thankfully, my body began reacting well before my brain caught up and I started screaming for help immediately. He shoved my face into the ground and threatened to kill me if I wasn’t quiet. This resulted in me throwing my head back and screaming as loudly as I could. He kept trying to cover my mouth to quiet me, so I kept moving my head and biting his hand whenever I had the chance.

When I run at night, I always carry pepper spray (strapped to my wrist). Unfortunately, my hands were still pinned underneath of me, so I couldn’t get to it. And honestly, even if I could, he was in such close proximity that it would have sprayed us both. All I could do was kick and try to get enough leverage behind my elbows to jab him in the ribs. I kept trying to throw my weight to one side so that I could roll out from under him, all the while still screaming at the top of my lungs.

I’m not entirely sure if he realized he was losing the battle or if the sound of neighbors scared him off, but moments after the whole thing started he was back on his bike and riding away. I immediately ran to the first house I saw with a porch light on and began ringing the doorbell. I went to dial the police and realized that I had his cell phone and pocket knife in my hands. Somehow, they had been lost in the scuffle. I dialed the police from my phone and while talking to the dispatcher (who was practically gleeful that I had his phone), neighbors began coming out of their houses. Several of them waited with me until the police arrived and even gave statements (though none of them had actually seen him or the incident, unfortunately).

The police arrived in less than five minutes. One of them drove me to the station to give my statement and to be photographed. Coincidently, after only a few minutes at the police station, a call came in reporting that the alleged perpetrator had gone back to the scene and was looking for his cell phone. One of my attentive neighbors was kind enough to call the police and my attacker was arrested that evening.

The whole thing from start to end was only about an hour.

I didn’t sleep much that night, or the next few nights. I’m mostly back to sleeping well now, but still have nightmares some nights. I will talk later about some of my coping strategies and how I’m handling the situation currently, but I want to first outline the things that I think are most important in terms of being proactive and protecting ourselves:

Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you are and be attentive to what’s happening around you. I LOVE loud music (as in, love when you can actually feel the vibrations in the things around you), but when you’re running outdoors you have to be able to hear when someone is nearby. So, leave your headphones at home or have them turned down low enough that you can hear when people are across the street or coming up behind you. If you notice a situation that seems off (like someone who might be following you), text a friend, get off the trail you’re on, and/or go to a populated area (such as a water fountain at a park). The most important thing is to get to a safe place.

Choose ideal areas. I prefer the trails I run because they are well maintained and have a good amount of foot traffic. It’s also important to consider things like good lighting (especially if you’re running after dark or under bridges). If you’re trying out a new trail or path for the first time, consider going with a partner (or even using an app that maps the path for you) so that you will have some familiarity with the area when you’re out on your own. I also prefer areas that are not as noisy due to nearby traffic or trains because it makes it easier to hear when someone is coming up from behind. I realize this may not be possible in all cases, but I generally look for more residential areas to run. 

Bring your phone. Always have your phone with you.  If you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re out, there is an awesome feature (on most phones) called “Do Not Disturb” that you can turn on while you’re out. Also, most leggings have a built-in side pocket for your phone now and if you don’t wear leggings, you can buy an arm band on Amazon for like $10 (there are a lot of other great options out there as well). Even if you don’t think you would ever need a phone for yourself, imagine coming upon someone else who could be injured and in need of help. Do you really want to run all the way home to call for help and leave that poor person alone and injured? No. So just bring your phone. 🙂

Consider running with others. I actually enjoy running alone so I feel personally conflicted about this point. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind running with others, then this is clearly a great option. For now, I’m walking with a partner when I go out after dark (because apparently none of my friends are fans of running). If you have a dog, running with your dog could be another great alternative. I considered adopting a dog for about 5 seconds and then remembered that dogs are a huge responsibility and that my cats would likely murder me in my sleep. So I’m remaining dog-less (at least for now).

Learn some self-defense basics. I was fortunate enough to have taken some basic self-defense training in the past as a job requirement (this was prior to my faculty position and totally unrelated to my current work). I also grew up in a household where I was taught to be mindful about parking under a street lamp and having my keys out and in my hand so they could be used as a weapon if needed. I am certain that all of this knowledge stuck somewhere in my brain and assisted in my quick reaction to this situation. The main point here is to educate yourself and to be aware of potential risks.

Select options that work for you. There isn’t really a perfect formula in terms of what works best in every instance. Again, the point of this post is not to prevent all potential bad scenarios from occurring because that’s not reasonable (we can’t live in bubbles). I had pepper spray with me and it was completely useless in this case. I’ve had some people recommend that I carry a gun. In this exact scenario, my attacker could have reached for it more quickly than me because I was pinned to the ground by the time I realized I was in danger. At the end of the day, the methods you choose to be proactive and to protect yourself are completely up to you. You have to be comfortable with the tools you choose because you’re the one that will be using them. For me, the most valuable things I have taken from this experience are education (e.g., how to defend yourself) and awareness (e.g., being in tune to what’s going on around you).

Lessons on being a good neighbor. There is a lot to be said for good neighbors and I am incredibly grateful to my neighbors who heard me that night. Since then, some of my neighbors have even mentioned that they are now keeping their porch lights on because that’s what drew me to the house I initially sought for safety. This experience has taught me the importance of being a good neighbor as well. It may be through keeping the porch light on, or checking things out when you hear a commotion outside (even if you think it’s probably just some kids messing around), or just mentioning to your neighbors when you see something out of the ordinary in your area. We all have the opportunity to be good neighbors simply by being vigilant and supportive members of the communities in which we live.

An honest reflection on coping and moving forward. Since this event, things have mostly returned to normal. I (successfully) defended my dissertation as planned which occurred only about a week after the attack (though I did briefly consider postponing my defense). I found it difficult to focus in the immediate days after the event, but I think part of that was the result of lack of sleep. My fat lip and bruised shoulder have fully healed, but I think the psychological impacts will take a bit of time.

I have moments of complete panic that I have never experienced previously. I have fear that I have never had before. Sometimes a thought flashes through my brain and I remember, “I thought I might die.” I know this is my way of processing this experience and that I will heal. And, I know healing will take time.

I’ve spoken openly about the event with family members and friends. I’ve gone back out running and I have taken the same route several times since the attack. I’m using my personal yoga practice as well as the classes that I teach as opportunities to practice being present in the moment and to find some inner peace.

Today, I’m writing about this event and sharing it with all of you. In the coming days, I’m going to look for a trauma counselor because I think talking to a professional could be helpful. For now, I’m trying to give myself some grace by allowing myself to feel sad or scared when those emotions arise and by giving myself plenty of time to process this event. And, I’m reminding myself that I survived and that I will be okay.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

With love,

Tiff

References

Pinola, M. (2011). Basic self-defense moves anyone can do (and everyone should know). Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Road Runners Club of America (RRCA). (2019). Education: RRCA general running safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.rrca.org/education/rrca-general-running-safety-tips

Spector, N. (2018). Scared to run alone? Women runners share their best safety tips. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/scared-run-alone-female-runners-share-how-they-stay-safe-ncna935186

Triola, P. (2019). The best safety tips for running on the roads or trails. Retrieved August 9, 2019 from https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a27559884/running-safety/

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

Person walking on fire. Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

People running and walking. Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

Man and woman jogging on bridge. Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Two bicycles near a house. Photo by Christopher Harris on Unsplash

New Content Coming Soon…

Hello, Friends!

I just wanted to post a quick update to let you know how much I have missed writing for this page (and that I haven’t forgotten about you)! Over the past few months, I have fully committed myself to my dissertation in an attempt to graduate in August and it’s paid off. I successfully defended my dissertation on Monday as I was surrounded by my committee members and several people who came to show their support and love. I have recently come to realize just how large my support network truly is, and my heart is overflowing.

In addition to graduating, I have also accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Nebraska – Kearney (which is practically next door). I hadn’t planned on finding a position in academia and intended instead to pursue independent consulting full time this fall. However, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect fit and I am so excited to be starting in just a few short weeks at UNK.

Between now and August 1st, I will be making some additional edits to my dissertation prior to submitting the final (final) draft for publication to our university’s online database. (I’ll be sure to post the link just in case you’re dying to read it, but no pressure.) Once that’s complete, I am designating some time to post new content to this site and I honestly can’t wait. Here’s some teasers for upcoming posts you can expect:

  • Facing Down Fears (I’ll be talking about a terrifying incident that happened to me in the recent past, how I think being prepared helped me, and what I’m doing now — plus, some practices I think we should all adopt)
  • Surviving a Season of Stress (This will be all about the strategies I used to make it through writing my dissertation and preparing to defend it, making it through 16-hour workdays when necessary, and taking time for self-care when possible)
  • Job Searching for the Right Fit (This will outline what I look for in a job posting before I even consider applying for it and how I customize my application materials to help ensure I get a request for an interview)

Of course, I have about a hundred other ideas floating around in my head but let’s save those for later. That reminds me — if you have a topic that you would like to see me write about, please feel free to reply in the comments section here or send me a quick email. I love to hear from you all and the worst thing I could possibly say is no, so why not?

Okay, that’s all for now but I’ll be back soon. 🙂 I hope you are taking some time for yourself to enjoy the remaining days of summer and to find some inner peace.

With love,
Tiff

Photo Credit:

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Letting Go

I’m writing this blog today as a tribute to my late grandfather, Ralph W. Luethke, whose beautiful soul left our world last week. Although different from my previous blogs, and perhaps unconventional, I’m posting this here because in so many ways, my grandfather embodied the type of leader I aspire to be.

Loss is painful.

We all experience loss at different points throughout life. Sometimes loss comes in the form of a job or a relationship, maybe it’s the place we’ve come to know and love when we relocate across town or across the world. Loss is a necessary part of our life experiences and even though it’s painful, it can be positive (e.g., the end of an unhealthy relationship).

The loss of someone we love touches the depths of our souls. There’s nothing like it. It breaks our hearts and leaves a lasting impact; we are forever changed.

I cannot iterate strongly enough the importance of having a support network, a village, a tribe to lean on in these times. Whether it is one person or many, this community is what will help us survive the loss. It is part of the mourning process to be together, to experience this loss together, to cry together, and in moments of rarity, even laugh together.

Over the past several days, I have been surrounded by those who loved my grandfather and those who undoubtedly love me. We share in this loss. The nuanced meaning of a hand on one’s shoulder is pure comfort. The connection between tearful eyes says, “I know this hurts right now, but we’re all going to be okay.”

In these moments, I find that I feel astonishingly fortunate despite the pain I am experiencing. It is a gift to be surrounded by so much love and support. Even though my heart is breaking, I know without doubt that I will be okay; we will heal from this loss although we will be changed.

When you experience loss – whether it’s right now or sometime in the future – I encourage you to reach out to those around you. Lean on the people who love you and allow them to help you heal.

The next several lines are written as a sort of letter to my grandfather. They read a bit more like a poem, though I didn’t pay particular attention to cadence or the number of syllables in each line, etc. As you read these words, I hope you might find a sense of comfort or inspiration. Thank you for taking the time to read today’s post.

With love,

Tiff

_______

I have always admired you.

In so many ways, I have aspired to be just like you.

You shared with me your unquenchable thirst for knowledge and endless sense of curiosity.

You saw beauty in all things, whether behind the lens of a camera or in giving refuge to the discarded treasure of others.

Your heart was ever light and joyful; taking every opportunity to share in laughter and celebration with others.

You gave reverence to all living things. Your kindness and compassion were boundless; always willing to share your time, your gifts, your knowledge with others.

You were a fierce and caring protector. Under your watchful eye, we thrived. You welcomed all into your home, your table, and your family.

You were assuredly peaceful in knowing that everything would turn out just as it’s meant to be; confident that you were exactly where you were supposed to be.

I am saddened that this world will not know your soul for another day or even a moment. To never hear you tell another story or watch you pour over the maps of our heritage again. These moments, like so many others, exist now only in our memories.

Your life of giving, nurturing, and loving the world around you is what you’ve left behind. This legacy, your legacy is forever etched on our hearts.

Finally your soul is free of its earthbound body. Truly this is grace.

_______

Photo Credit:

Shoreline during golden hour, Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

What Lights Your Fire?

The thing about motivation is that it’s not exactly like learning another skill. It’s not at all like learning to cook or ride a bike or learning to drive — those things stick with you and even when you haven’t done them for a while, they tend to come back to you pretty quickly.

Motivation is not something that we can really gain mastery of — just when we think we’ve got it, it’s gone. It’s fleeting and it changes from one time and place to another. In completing one ambition, we may find our motivation to be consistently strong throughout. Yet in the case of another goal or resolution, we struggle to find the motivation to even begin.

Why is that?

Different circumstances, different expectations, different time and place. Maybe our level of interest is varied or we’re simply lacking passion (you can read more about passion in my post on Grit). Whatever the case, rest assured that you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone struggles to find motivation at least some of the time (myself included) and there are lots of strategies to help you discover and keep your motivation burning which I’m going to outline today.

As always, you shouldn’t feel obligated to do everything included in this post (in fact, I wouldn’t even advise that). What I hope you’ll find here instead are a few practical ideas that resonate with you and help provide the spark you need to set your motivation ablaze. Remember, our entire life journey is a work in progress of sorts, so we shouldn’t expect to attain perfection anytime soon!

My own mantra this week is, “Nothing can stop me today — I can only stop myself.” I share this because I think it fits well with the topic of motivation, particularly because I tend to find (and maybe you do as well) that the thing getting in my way most of the time is me! No one is making me take on the commitments in my life that I’ve made — I chose to make them. When I find that my plate is overwhelmingly full, I can only look to myself because I’m the one that filled it in that manner.

I’m not saying this to beat myself up or to suggest that you should in any way do the same. Conversely, it’s important that we take ownership and find empowerment in knowing that we shape our own goals and experiences. While we can’t control everything that happens in a day, we can own the way that we choose to spend our time and how we react to the occurrences throughout each day.

Not sure where to start? Here’s some ideas to help you discover and keep your motivation – that internal fire inside us all – burning strong:

Share your knowledge with others. In most cases, it’s not that you don’t know what to do or how to reach your goal, but channeling the motivation to actually make progress can be difficult. Many people find themselves stuck in a rut, unable to take meaningful action, even though they know exactly what they need to do. There’s a good chance you know someone who’s been wanting to lose weight for years, but hasn’t been able to actually commit to a particular diet (maybe that someone is even you). Yet, that person probably has more knowledge about nutrition and calorie intake vs. outtake than almost anyone else in your life.

In this case, the key to forward momentum is building self-confidence by telling others how to do it. Yes, literally go tell other people the step-by-step process for how to accomplish the goal that you want to accomplish yourself. (I know this sounds a bit odd, but stay with me.)  A very compelling study by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach (see Fessler, 2018) demonstrated how simply giving advice to others (on the same issues she/he was struggling to do) could help build one’s self-confidence enough to propel individuals into action. It reminds me of that saying, ‘those who can’t do teach,’ except that in this case it’s like ‘those who teach are more likely to do,’ which aligns perfectly with my next point…

“Do something. Do anything.” According to Mark Manson (bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck) action can precipitate action simply by helping us build confidence in our ability to do so. It doesn’t have to be something big, but making any sort of action towards reaching our goals often creates the inspiration and motivation we need to continue along a path of progress. If you’re paralyzed by your fear of going to the gym, maybe start with a walk outside or find a YouTube video to follow along with at home. If you want to mend a relationship with someone and you don’t know where to start, try picking up the phone and calling them or writing them a letter (you don’t even have to send it if you don’t want to).

When I’m struggling to start writing (which is basically everyday), I will often say to myself, “Okay, I’ll just create an outline,” or “I can at least write down the thoughts that are in my head,”  or “Fine, I’ll write ONE paragraph.” Oftentimes I’ll find that as a result, moving onto other parts becomes much easier because I’ll have ideas for how to do so (and maybe even a bit of excitement).

Maybe I’ll have an idea for a second paragraph or the introduction or a totally different point I want to make later in the chapter (or blog post…). In any case, once you’ve actually started, it’s so much easier to keep going and I almost always find myself thinking something along the lines of, “That wasn’t so difficult (but I’m definitely not going to admit that I may have even enjoyed myself a bit), I don’t know why I put this off — I’ll just do a bit more.”

When I’m really stumped (or just because), one of my favorite things to do is to create a timeline. It doesn’t have to be very detailed when you begin, it can literally just be an estimated start and end date. Bench marks (tasks that need to be completed along the way) will begin to form in your mind and then you can break down how long each item will take you to complete. After you’ve completed your working or tentative timeline (because it’s always subject to change), you can look to the first task and start working on it immediately.

Be realistic in your expectations. Sometimes we come to a phase in life where we feel compelled to overhaul our entire state of being. If you’re trying to lose weight for instance, you may want to drastically change your diet, workout routine, and sleep habits all at once. While these behaviors likely work together and could potentially reinforce each other, making several drastic life changes at once is almost always a guaranteed recipe for failure.

It’s not at all because we don’t possess the ability to do so, but rather that we’re asking ourselves to do something that is virtually impossible and unsustainable. Meaningful and lasting changes tend to occur through small incremental changes over time. In the example I gave above, you could start with changing just one aspect of your life (like diet) and integrate the others later once you’ve accomplished your initial goal. Another option might be to set two attainable goals to begin (like eating out one day less each week and getting up 10 minutes earlier) which you make more challenging over time (like eating out only once a week and getting up an hour earlier).

As with the above points discussed, this approach tends to work because small, attainable goals help us experience a sense of achievement which in turn, builds self-confidence. Why should you care about self-confidence? Because self-confidence is really about learning to trust ourselves. Imagine if you had someone in your life who you continually told you they would meet you at a certain time tomorrow and then for weeks, they never showed up, day after day. After a few days (or maybe even just the first day), you would stop waiting for them because you wouldn’t trust them.

Every time we break a commitment to ourselves, we break our own trust. We trust ourselves less and less until we come to believe that we won’t follow through with anything and are incapable of accomplishing any goals. We diminish our self-confidence until there is nothing left (just writing this makes me feel so sad!!). Why do we treat ourselves with so little regard? We are important and so worthy of self-love and of keeping our commitments to ourselves (which fits so well with my next point)!

Before we move on, let me just say once more — YOU are important and YOU are worthy of love.

More compassion, less criticism. There’s a lot of research which shows that self-criticism actually works to demotivate us. (Which is probably not so surprising after reading the last few paragraphs.) When we fail, as we inevitably will, it’s important to have some self-compassion. Be gracious with yourself in recognizing that at any moment we can start again and try our best to do better.

More compassion may mean that you go off your diet for a night because it’s important to enjoy a special occasion with your family and not worry about monitoring your food choices. It may mean that you while you didn’t stick to your diet for breakfast (because maybe someone brought donuts to the office this morning), you’re committed to making good food choices for lunch (or dinner if you call it that) and supper instead of throwing the whole day out the window. It may mean that while you missed your deadline for a project or goal, you recognize that you’ve still made a lot of progress and you’re committed to seeing it through, even if it’s a little bit later than you had hoped.

I want to note that there’s a healthy balance between being self-compassionate and not falling into overly-compromising on a commitment to yourself (which can harbor distrust). That balance will be different depending on the individual and the circumstances. I genuinely believe however, you know the difference— you know when you’re showing a little bit of grace, flexibility, and self-compassion (which is sometimes needed) and you know when you’re breaking a commitment or promise to yourself. Be mindful of the difference and do what’s best for you.

Stay in the present moment. When that moment of conflict arises and you find yourself with the desire to compromise your goal, whatever it may be, know that this is only natural. This is an inevitable occurrence within the process of change. Instead of seeking a distraction, stay present in the moment. Try facing these moments with a sense of curiosity (instead of chastising yourself). Consider what it mean to cheat on your goal today or in this moment. Likely, it would mean breaking a promise you’ve made to yourself.

Remind yourself of your goal’s importance and worth (and perhaps also of your importance and worth as well). Why did you commit to this goal in the first place? Why was (is) it important to you? Stay with these feelings and allow them to pass (because they definitely will!). You may be surprised at the emotions connected to these experiences — you may feel anger or sadness or remorse (or something else altogether). Just know that it’s okay to feel; we’re human and that’s what we do.

Recruit an ally. Accountability can be a powerful tool especially if you’re someone who struggles to keep resolutions for yourself. *raises hand slowly* This doesn’t have to come in the form of a person (though it certainly may!), it could be in the form of keeping a reflection journal or logging your progress in an app. There are a lot of great apps out there for tracking fitness goals through logging your food and workout habits, for example. (I use Fitbit and know a lot of people who use MyFitnessPal, but there are many other good apps out there beyond these.)

The most important thing here, is finding whatever works to help hold you accountable and provide some support toward reaching your goals. I recently installed an aerial yoga hammock in my house (it was actually a gift from my parents – thank you!!) which I had been wanting to do for some time. I was initially drawn to it because it looked like fun, – which it totally is – but since practicing with it, I’ve realized it has immense value in its ability to act as a support in learning to do things like inversions or for working on balance in poses like Warrior 3. I’m telling you this because I happened to mention my observation to my doctoral Advisor and she, in her infinite wisdom, remarked how perfectly this demonstrated that with the right supports in place, virtually anything is attainable (it literally gives me goosebumps even now).

Isn’t that the truth? Things that sometimes feel out of reach or even impossible to us, suddenly become realities when we just have the right tools or the right people around us. So spend a bit of time thinking about what might be most helpful to you and recognize that it may take some trial and error to figure it out. Once it’s there, the sky is the limit – literally, anything is possible.

Channel your inner rebel. If you’re the type of person who resists being told what to do and when to do it (as many of us are), you may not love the idea of setting boundaries for yourself. However, the same characteristics that compel us to resist constraints also drive us to fight and fight hard; we love to defy expectations, prove others wrong, and most of all, we LOVE to win!

I have a good friend who’s taking his sibling rivalry to a whole new level by competing with his sister to make his fitness goals. That desire to beat her (or maybe just to not let her win?) is a big part of what’s driving him to make it to the gym every morning before work. Healthy competition can be highly motivational for individuals like this (myself included). It may not be possible (or ideal) in every case, but for something like losing weight, it could be really fun to challenge a friend or family member.

I will add a word of caution on this point, however. Yes, spite can be a powerful motivator, but I’m not sure it’s always a healthy one – especially if it’s the ONLY thing that’s driving you to accomplish a goal. It’s important that our goals be things that we have chosen to pursue because they are meaningful and important to us in some way. If the desire to prove someone wrong or to be better than someone else is the only thing that is driving you to pursue a goal, I urge you to consider whether it’s truly something worth the effort. Is it something that will bring joy or peace to your life in some way? If not, it may be time to drop it.

Do some investigative work. It can be really helpful to do a little research about your goal and to find out what others have done to achieve the same goal. If it’s a particularly broad topic area (like weight loss ), you may find the amount of information online to be overwhelming at first because there are literally thousands of articles available. Consider starting with friends, family members, or colleagues who may have had similar experiences and ask what’s worked well for them. Most people are happy to share their success stories and will probably give you more information than you asked for!  Once you have a good starting point (like maybe the name of a particular diet to research), you can narrow your search online for additional information if needed.

This approach can be particularly helpful if you’re someone who likes to make a clear plan ahead of time or if you have a tendency to want to know the “best” or “right” way to do something. Just be sure to keep in mind that what’s best for you may be different from what’s best or has worked for someone else and that’s completely okay (really, it’s to be expected). You may even need to try some things out to find the best fit before making a decision. Remember, what’s most important is to actually take the first steps toward achieving your goal (back to that point about “Do something. Do Anything.”) – even if it’s not quite right when you first start. Don’t get stuck in the research and planning phase at the cost of delaying your goal any longer.

Make your commitment a big deal. It may be tempting to say you’ll start your diet (or virtually any other goal) on Monday, but it’s really important to set an official start date. Lots of people get stuck in the planning and preparation phase; they continually procrastinate actually acting on their resolution. Look at your calendar and mark the start date. Look at the events you have coming up in the near future – will you be traveling or do you have a big celebration to attend? You may want to plan around these things to help ensure you will be successful (just don’t put it off for too long).

Once you have a start date, commit to working on your goal for a set length of time. It may be 30 days, or 3 months, or 6 months depending on your goal and the amount of time you think you will realistically need to accomplish it. Something you may also want to consider are conditions for breaking your commitment. For instance, what will happen if you break your commitment one day or you don’t reach your goal for a week? Will you start over at Day 1?

It may sound harsh, but having some conditions or even consequences in place can actually help us stay committed on those days when we just want to give up. We’ll think to ourselves, “I don’t want to cheat because I don’t want to start over!” I didn’t invent this idea, it’s been used by many people and it’s one of the principles of the Whole30 diet which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. When you get to day 25 and you just want to eat some bread, you’re much less likely to do so because you only have five days left and you don’t want to start the 30 days all the way from the beginning again!!

Okay, enough of that – here’s the fun part: Find a way to commemorate your first day by doing something special. Celebrate in some way or get something that brings meaning to the day for you. It doesn’t have to cost anything – it could be as simply as writing your goal in a place that you will see it every day. It might be finding a mantra that you will remind yourself of as you work on your goal such as, “I trust in myself and the decisions I make,” or simply, “I am enough.”  Consider also telling friends and family members about your plan as they may want to know and could help cheer you along the way (and celebrate in your success!).

Trust the transformational process. Recognize that change occurs over time and when we are ready to change. If you have the intention to change and put forth the effort, you will absolutely change — but it’s probably not going to happen overnight. Trust that you will reach your goal in your own time — every day is a day of progress along that journey.

Celebrate your small successes along the way to help remind yourself of your progress. Additionally, you may consider journaling so that you can frequently reflect on how far you’ve come. Even if you did everything on this list and mapped your goal out perfectly, life has a tendency to get in the way on occasion. Remember that we can’t control everything. In unexpected moments, have some self-compassion and then trust that we will all be okay. You will be okay.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of ideas mentioned in the paragraphs above to help you channel your own motivational fire. However, there are a few common threads that seem to be focused around:

  • Taking action – even if it’s not quite the right action, just trying something out can be helpful in creating the momentum to move forward
  • Growing our self-confidence (which involves building trust with ourselves) often provides the empowerment required to commit to and achieve our goals
  • Knowing there isn’t a one-size fits all approach; what works best for you will depend on your individual needs and circumstances (so don’t be afraid to try out some different things)
  • Recognizing that meaningful and sustainable change take time to create (so have patience with the process)

I hope you enjoyed today’s post and I encourage you to share any questions or comments below. I would love to hear about your own goals, plans, challenges, successes, etc.!

All my best to you,

Tiff

References

Fessler, L. (2018). Psychologists have surprising advice people who feel unmotivated. Quartz at Work. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://qz.com/work/1363911/two-psychologists-have-a-surprising-theory-on-how-to-get-motivated/

Manson, M. (2011). The “do something” principle. MM.net. Retrieved from January 6, 2019, from https://markmanson.net/do-something

Vozza, S. (2018). How these 4 different personality types find motivation. Fast Company. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40560193/how-these-4-different-personality-types-find-motivation

Wilson, A. (2016). Playing with fire: The power of Tapas to help us fulfill our intentions. Kripalu: Center for Yoga & Health. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://kripalu.org/resources/playing-fire-power-tapas-help-us-fulfill-our-intentions

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Fire, Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
  2. Books on bookshelf, Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
  3. Calendar, Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
  4. Crossed hands, Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash
  5. Ladder to sky, Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
  6. Monarch butterflies, Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

A Quick Note…

I hope this finds you all well and that your 2019 is off to a great start! I just wanted to post a few lines and apologize for the lack of recent posts! As many of you can probably relate, finding my sense of balance and routine in the new year has been a bit chaotic.

While change is a necessary part of life (which often leads to positive and desirable outcomes), it can be painful and scary and downright difficult at times! If you can relate, remember that you will be okay – everything will work out. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of all the challenges you’ve faced and conquered in the past (let’s face it, you’re a badass). Be empowered and face tomorrow head-on. You’ve got this.

Here’s a quick update of what’s happening:

  1. I’m currently in the final stages of my doctoral program and working toward completing my dissertation (basically a book – and I’ll tell you all about it if you care to know) over the next few months. In short, this means I will likely be spending several hours every day designated to writing between now and May. And, as much as I absolutely love writing for this blog, I’m taking some of my own advice on avoiding Burnout which means I won’t be posting as frequently to the Whole Leader site.
  2. However, I have asked a few of my favorite colleagues and friends to help contribute by guest blogging over the next few months – so you can look forward to excellent content and insights from some very exceptional people. More to come on this later…
  3. I’ve been working on becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher (200-hour) over the past several months and I’m excited to announce that I will be teaching yoga classes locally starting next month. For those of you who are located in the Kearney area and have any interest in yoga (even if you’ve never done it before), I would love to see you at a class! Once the details are finalized, I will post them to the Whole Leader site with a full schedule and information about how to sign up.
  4. I’m currently finishing a blog post on getting and staying motivated (and to be honest, it’s really as much for me as it is for any of you lovely readers out there!) which will be posted sometime in the next week. The topic was inspired by a dear friend and loyal reader (you know who you are) and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

Please feel free to post any comments or questions below and I will respond to you as soon as possible!

All my very best to you,
Tiff

Photo Credit:

Typewriter, Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

How to be a Better Communicator (a.k.a. Listener)

So often, we actually stop listening before the speaker has even finished sharing their thoughts. We’re always a few steps ahead; predicting, planning our next steps, preparing a response, or allowing our minds to wander to other (perhaps more pressing) thoughts.

Learning to be a good listener is fundamental to becoming a good communicator. Research suggests that people who are good at listening tend to be more successful in their careers and experience better relationships. Yet most people are not very good at listening. Why is that?

Well for one thing, we don’t really practice listening and we definitely don’t emphasize it in education (have you ever seen a class on listening?). While listening is the very first communication skill we learn as children, parents and teachers tend to prioritize the development of speaking, reading, and writing skills over listening.

This may have something to do with culture as our society tends to value the ability to articulate our individual thoughts and ideas more than openness toward or acceptance of ideas that are different from our own.

Listening it something I’ve been studying for years. In fact, my undergraduate degree is in Organizational Communication and I’ve taught an interpersonal skills course several times. So in preparation for today’s post, I even dusted off a couple of my old textbooks to brush up a bit. 🙂

Based on my own experiences and the opinions of a few experts, here are some of the best practices for becoming better listeners:

Listen beyond just hearing. Hearing is the physical process of sound entering our ears and being processed by the brain. We hear many things throughout the day, but we only choose to listen to some of those messages. Listening, on the other hand, is a voluntary process that requires our attention and energy.

Think back to your college classes – did you tend to retain information better when you were actively paying attention and taking notes, or when you were distracted – perhaps talking with a neighbor or doodling in your notebook? We all know the answer to this question – listening takes intention and it requires our full attention (so put your phone down!).

Actually pay attention to what’s being said. The most common issue we face in effective listening is our failure to block out distractions. It tends to be harder than we might think given all of the stimuli that surrounds us. Of course our phones are a major distraction, but things like background noise or even personal stress can act to deter us from giving our full attention as well. We all know what it feels like when someone is distracted from listening to us and it’s not fun, so let’s commit to minimizing barriers when possible.

Barriers may be environmental (like background noise or televisions on the wall or people walking by or phone notifications popping up), physiological (like when our minds start to wander or when we have a cold which impacts our ability to hear well), or psychological (like when we have a poor attitude about what’s being said or we disagree with the message).

Again, it takes intention to block out distractions so be thoughtful about where you meet people or even the time of day. For instance, trying to have a conversation when we’re hungry or tired could impact our ability to focus. When possible, meet in a quiet space. Try to minimize distractions by, perhaps, closing the door or playing soft background music without words.

You know when you are most alert and productive during your day, so consider scheduling meetings for times of the day when you feel the best. For me, this tends to be mid-morning and mid-afternoon (which is when I schedule almost all of my meetings).

Don’t anticipate what’s next. A lot of us have this bad habit of anticipating what someone is going to say next, so we stop listening. Or worse, we start strategizing what we’re going to say in response, before they’re even done talking. Stop anticipating what’s next and actually listen with an open mind to what is being said.

Sometimes, people will surprise us. Sometimes, we will be wrong. And sometimes, we may actually learn something new or change the way we think as a result of what we hear. There is no shame in taking a second to process what we’ve heard and to gather our thoughts in order to prepare a response – so there’s no need to rush. And sometime, silence is a good thing because every now and then, the speaker will open up without any prompting at all.

Slow down and really listen.

Be aware of the whole message. Between 75% and 90% of the information we gather from others is attained through nonverbal communication. This means that while the actual words are incredibly important, understanding the meaning beyond those words is also necessary.

Be observant of things like body language, inflection, and tone which provide clues to the real meaning of the message.  Is the speaker being sarcastic? Are they communicating frustration? Are they attempting to deflect blame or guilt by minimizing a request?

If you’re not sure, ask! Simply asking can provide us with the additional information that tells us the true meaning of the message. Beyond this, it shows that we are really listening and engaging in the conversation at hand. Try something like, “Are you sure you’re okay? I hear you saying that you are, but your body language and tone seem to say that you’re not actually okay.” Sometimes a caring and empathetic voice is all a person needs to open up a little.

Evaluate what you hear with open-mindedness.  Part of listening is not simply accepting the words we hear, but considering how they resonate with what we know from our own life experiences. Recognize that we all have different experiences which have shaped our individual perceptions of the world.

While you may not agree with someone’s message (which is completely okay!), keep in mind that your goal should be to connect with the speaker’s underlying emotion or attitude about the content. Even if you don’t agree with the speaker’s point, you can likely understand their emotion. Something as simple as, “I can see why that would be frustrating,” can provide a sense of support and understanding.

Keep in mind also that the speaker may not want or expect you to respond to what they’re saying with a solution. Sometimes, people just need to feel like they’re being heard, like they have a voice. A good way to check this is to simply ask, “How can I help or support you?” or “Do you want to strategize possible solutions?”

Provide feedback with acceptance and positivity. In responding, it is best to avoid challenging an individual’s intelligence or honesty. Such approaches are personal attacks and will almost certainly be met defensively. Instead, good feedback should be immediate, honest, and supportive.

We can show that we are engaged and responsive by making eye contact, showing the appropriate facial expressions (like smiling or frowning), gesturing with our head movements (like nodding), providing touch when appropriate (like touching one’s arm to provide comfort), or giving verbal affirmations (like simply encouraging the speaker to continue or checking to ensure we understand their meaning). Paraphrasing can also demonstrate empathetic listening.

Being empathetic or supportive doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t disagree with the speaker’s message if we don’t agree – quite the contrary. In working with students, there were a few instances in which I disagreed with their line of thinking (e.g., what’s fair or not fair). However, we have the ability to articulate our perspective without attacking the speaker.

One good approach might be looking at facts or evidence. In my experiences, this generally involved looking at things like how many days a student had missed and/or how many assignments they hadn’t submitted. This could involve providing specific personal examples or citing current (reliable) news articles. Whatever the case, focus on the content of the message itself, not the speaker.

Final Thoughts

Being intentional in listening starts with thoughtful planning to minimize distractions and to actually be prepared to listen.

It takes work to listen and understand the real meaning of the message. If you’re not sure that you’re really getting it – just ask! It’s much more authentic than pretending to understand or just tuning out altogether.

Empathy is an important component to listening. Focus on connecting with the emotion of the speaker and look for opportunities to be supportive when appropriate.

References

Arntson, A. (2017). Most of us are bad listeners – Here are some small ways to fix that. Verily. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://verilymag.com/2017/12/listening-skills-relationship-communication-active-constructive-responding

Fritz, S., Brown, F. W., Lunde, J. P., & Banset, E. A. (2005). Interpersonal skills for leadership (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Henderson, N. (2018). How to be a better listener: Fixing 5 common bad habits. Welltuned. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from http://bcbstwelltuned.com/2018/07/26/how-to-be-a-better-listener-fixing-5-common-bad-habits/

Trenholm, S. (2008). Thinking through communication: An introduction to the study of human communication (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Wong, K. (2017). How to be an excellent (or at least pretty good) listener. The Cut. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/how-to-be-a-better-listener.html

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Boy screaming, Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
  2. Fashion’s untold stories, Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
  3. Coffee talks, Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash
  4. Leaning on each other, Photo by Shamim Nakhaei on Unsplash

The Truth About Self-Destruction

I have to admit that this has probably been the most difficult post for me to write to date. For me, the topic of self-destruction hits really close to home. I feel like this entire past week, I’ve been challenged to look myself in the mirror and consider the ways in which I am and have been self-destructive.

Before we delve into this conversation, I want to be very clear in stating that I am not a trained mental health care professional and I can only speak from my own experiences. In developing today’s discussion, I’ve selected sources which I believe to be the most credible and to contain the most helpful information about this topic.

On that note, I want to offer a word of caution if you plan to do additional research on this topic as there are many articles out there which I feel offer incomplete or oversimplified and even potentially harmful information about this very complex topic.

Really, it’s impossible to expect that a single blog post could provide a comprehensive discussion of everything there is to know about self-destruction. So to that end, I would encourage you to read more about this topic herehere, here, and here. These articles will be a good start to understanding this topic – for yourself or perhaps for a loved one who has self-destructive tendencies.

Some of you may be wondering what it means to be self-destructive or you may be asking if you are self-destructive. Nearly any behavior can become self-destructive when it has the potential to cause us harm.

Some of the most common self-destructive behaviors include:

  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Over eating (and under eating)
  • Sabotaging relationships
  • Engaging in frequent casual sex
  • Committing self-harm
  • Smoking

The list goes on and on. Even things that sometimes appear “healthy” on the surface can become destructive – like dieting (e.g., under eating), over exercising, unnecessary self-sacrifice (e.g., which result in giving up on your own goals), or being overly independent (e.g., refusing to ask for or accept help).

Have you ever done something and then asked yourself why you did it because it seemed irrational afterwards? For example, I can think of at least a few people I know who feared that their relationship with a significant other was about to end and then they caused a huge fight with that person. Almost inevitably the relationship ended as a result. Why do we sometimes sabotage ourselves like that?

Do you know someone who seems to have a skill for making a bad situation worse? Or maybe you are that person? *raises hand* In reality,we probably all know someone who struggles with self-destructive behaviors. We see them do the same things over and over again which have damaging effects on nearly every aspect of their lives and result in disappointment and failure.

Self-sabotage or self-destruction is not a rational behavior. In fact, for the most part, we tend to know it’s a bad idea when we’re doing it. We know it’s probably going to cause us (or possibly others) harm in the long run, but we go ahead and do it anyway. Sometimes, it feels like it’s impossible to stop doing whatever it is.

In this case, logic doesn’t really work because we already know that logically, this is a bad idea. Whether you believe you may have some self-destructive tendencies or you have a loved one who is self-destructive, I think you will find the information provided in today’s post to be helpful.

I’m going to break this discussion into two major parts. First, to understand why we do this and second, to understand what we can do about. Awareness is key here because once we’re down the path of self-sabotage, it’s pretty hard to pull ourselves back. Prevention and self-care are the best tools to help us manage our self-destructive tendencies, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Part 1: Why do we do this?

Self-destruction is not an indication of someone who is broken or defective. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must have something ‘wrong’ with us – an addictive personality type or some other disorder that compels us to be this way. However, that’s simply not true. There are many intelligent, successful people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors. (And chances are, you know some of them.)

Self-destruction is not driven by a desire to suffer or fail. Some therapists have made this claim, but that line of thinking is outdated and completely unsupported. Additionally, when we blame ourselves and begin to believe that we are simply bad people, or that we are incapable of making the right decisions, we tend to exacerbate the situation. We create a greater sense of stress (and perhaps even guilt) and continue to behave in the same way because we have failed to understand the true cause of our self-destruction.

Self-destructive behaviors provide a sense of relief. Despite the fact that some self-destructive behaviors  seem rather unpleasant (e.g., self-harm), they share the commonality of providing a sense of relief for their actors. This relief may come through pleasure or distraction or escape or as a means of expressing emotion. Certainly, what provides a sense of relief for one person will not be the same for another. Yet, the most important thing to understand here is that the behavior is something that feels helpful in the moment, but is actually harmful over time.

Self-destruction is a coping mechanism. In the simplest terms, individuals seek relief through self-destructive behaviors because they are attempting to cope with overwhelming negative emotion. The behavior itself allows them to “turn off” the emotion even if it’s just temporary. While individuals who act self-destructively are actually very diverse, Wupperman (2018) notes that they tend to share these common characteristics:

  • Experiencing emotion more strongly than others
  • Growing up in an adverse or invalidating environment

It’s important to note that this is a great oversimplification and may not apply to every person in every situation. Again, I encourage you to learn more about this topic by seeking out qualified individuals and credible resources.

Part 2: What can we do about it?

If we understand the underlying cause for our behavior, we gain awareness to better address our self-destructive tendencies. While we will always encounter unexpected events which trigger negative emotional responses (like the death of a loved one, going through a breakup or divorce, the loss of a job, and so on), we have the opportunity to better prepare ourselves for these experiences through self-care and planning.

In a moment, we’ll get to some practical and hopefully meaningful approaches for learning how to overcome (or prevent) our self-destructive behaviors, but first I want to address what doesn’t work (because there’s a lot of poor – and just plain incorrect – information out there).

Shaming doesn’t work. Telling someone they’re going to die, or destroy their life, or whatever other consequences you can think up, by continuing their behavior will not help them stop committing that behavior. In fact, it may very well have the opposite effect because the desire and pressure for relief will likely increase. And worse, it may also alienate you from this person.

This is why the idea of letting a person hit ‘rock bottom,’ or tearing them down to build them up, or posting embarrassing pictures of them (like the ones where an obese person has a heaping plate of food in front of them) tend not to work (as in, almost never). If we acknowledge that the self-destructive behavior is being committed in order to “turn off” negative emotion, we can begin to understand why shaming simply doesn’t work.

Distraction from or avoidance of the emotion doesn’t work. You may have heard people say things like, “You just need to find a hobby to distract you from doing (whatever your destructive behavior is)” Remember earlier when I said that virtually any behavior has the potential to become self-destructive? That’s because even if you give up smoking for say snacking, you’re only exchanging one self-destructive behavior for another potentially self-destructive behavior. Substituting doesn’t work because ultimately we’re still avoiding the emotion and that’s what got us here in the first place.

This is particularly dangerous because avoidance of our emotions accumulates over time. It’s not that the emotion ever goes away when we ignore it. In reality it builds much like steam in a pressure cooker. The more we ignore our emotions, the more steam we add to the pressure cooker, until one day we simply can’t hold it in and it explodes (think mid-life crisis, nervous breakdown, etc.). We have to learn healthy ways to feel and cope with our emotions without always needing to escape from them.

The following paragraphs will include some of these healthier ways to cope with our emotions.

Stay present with the emotion. Instead of ignoring or attempting to distract ourselves from our emotions, recognize them for what they are; be mindful of them. Name them, acknowledge them, and address them with curiosity. You may find that you’re feeling particularly anxious and ask yourself why you might be feeling that way. Oftentimes, our emotional responses are justified by something that is occurring in our lives (either internally or externally). It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Acknowledging that you feel down doesn’t mean that you are in any way failing – quite the contrary, emotional experiences are a normal part of life! When we acknowledge our emotions and allow ourselves to feel without judgement, we can be empowered to move forward. Remember, the emotion is temporary and it will pass. The key is not to let these emotions impede our ability to continue living – we can coexist with our emotions, acknowledging that they are present (and uncomfortable), but that we will still persevere despite them.

Seek support and assistance from others. Finding a qualified mental health care professional can be invaluable. I want to make a point here that terms like “counselor” tend to be used rather loosely. If you’re seeking professional help, look for someone with the title of Certified Mental Health Counselor, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist to be sure you’re going to receive the best level of care from a trained and qualified professional.

Additionally, know that you may need to ‘try out’ a couple of different professionals before you find the right one. Finding the best mental health care professional for you is a bit like finding the right hairdresser (I think women may be able to relate to this example a bit better than men, but hopefully you will still get the idea). If you don’t find that you have a good connection with the first provider you meet, don’t get discouraged – simply make an appointment with someone else and try again (then repeat this until you find the right fit).

Ultimately, your ideal mental health professional will be someone who is able to provide help and support without judgement.

Practice self-compassion. Instead of beating ourselves up when we feel the need to behave self-destructively, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can in this moment. Practice positive self-talk like, “I know I can do this if I put my mind to it.” This is something that tends to be difficult for most people, so it may be helpful to think of what you would tell a friend in the same situation and then compassionately say those words to yourself.

When we experience negative emotions, it can also be helpful to practice self-soothing behaviors. Try listening to some calming music or taking a bubble bath or playing with a pet or going for a walk. When you find that it’s difficult to focus, taking a break to relax can be so much more productive than forcing ourselves to push through it – show yourself a little grace, you deserve it.

Find creative outlets to express emotion. Drawing, painting, dancing, playing an instrument, writing music or poetry, journaling, or any other practice that allows for creativity can be highly productive outlets for expressing our emotions.

In many ways, doing so allows us to explore our emotion with some curiosity and to face it, rather than ignore it. We don’t have to be ‘good’ at any of these art forms and it doesn’t have to be pretty (more than likely, it will result in something ugly and that’s okay). The point of this expression is that in some way, we are able let the emotion out – it’s a means of processing our feelings, and it can be very cathartic.

Learn to let go. Letting go of the past is so much easier said than done – I know. Forgiveness for ourselves and those who have hurt us can be incredibly freeing, however. You don’t even need to tell someone you’re forgiving them, you can simply have the intention and then commit to doing it. And, you can do the same in order to forgive yourself. You may even practice reciting a mantra such as, “I am worthy of compassion” to help you do this.

One activity which has been helpful for me in the past was writing a letter to someone who hurt me which said everything I wished I could say to them (all of the good, the bad, and the ugly). Afterwards, I buried the letter as a symbol of letting those things go; putting some sort of closure on the past and committing to moving forward.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that while I mentioned I have some self-destructive tendencies, I didn’t actually name them. I was extremely purposeful in writing this week’s post and I intentionally left this out because quite frankly, it’s not important.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned in others posts, I don’t think it’s healthy for us to compare ourselves to others because it sets us up to think in terms of ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ which is unproductive and damaging. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to simply recognize ourselves for who we are as individuals and show some grace for the areas where we have room for growth.

Whether you read this post in an effort to find some help for yourself or for someone else, I hope you will walk away knowing that you are not alone. So many people struggle with self-destructive behaviors. Remember that our negative emotions will pass with time and that there are many healthy ways to practice coping.

If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to post them below or to send me a private email.

All my best to you,

Tiff

References

Babauta, L. (2014). A guide to changing self-destructive behaviors. Zen Habits. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://zenhabits.net/destruct/

Hathaway, K. (Ed.) (2016). Dealing with negativity. University of Minnesota. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/health/thoughts-emotions/deal-negativity-healthy-way

Neuman, F. (2017). Why do some people do self-destructive things? Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201701/why-do-some-people-do-self-destructive-things

Rollin, J. (2018).What if you changed the way that you view self-destructive behaviors? The Eating Disorder Center. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.theeatingdisordercenter.com/blog/what-if-you-changed-the-way-that-you-viewed-self-destructive-behaviors

Wupperman, P. (2018). Beyond self-destructive behavior. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-self-destructive-behavior

Photos (in order of appearance)

  1. Don’t give up, Photo by taha ajmi on Unsplash
  2. Cry, Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash
  3. Naufragus, Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
  4. Stories: Ch. 1, Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash