To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Be yourself!” We hear this phrase in many contexts — as advice for children worried about how to act at school, or for a junior high school student just starting to go on dates, or as general advice for having good relationships and friendships, not to mention endorsements from people like the esteemed Mr. Emerson mentioned above. On the flip side, there are probably just as many jeering and booing as applauding this statement, suggesting that perhaps this advice doesn’t take the realities of the world into account, or that it is just too simplistic to be useful. But what does it really mean to “be yourself”? I think it’s not always clear what “being yourself” might mean, and not even clear what you might do to “be yourself” — but I do think that some of the ideas around “being yourself” may be relevant to having great relationships.
Saying what you “feel like saying” vs. Communicating what you feel
What might “being yourself” mean? It could mean that you say whatever you feel like saying. So if you’re at the opera and you feel like standing up and (inappropriately) shouting “Bravo!” in the middle of a quiet scene, you would do so. If you’re physically attracted to someone, you would tell them, even if they’re married to your friend. As you can imagine, saying and doing what you “feel like doing” can get you into a lot of trouble. And sometimes our feelings conflict — we might feel like saying two different things at the same time. So there may be some problems with saying what you feel like saying.
Perhaps even more importantly, what we feel like saying in the moment may not accurately reflect what we actually feel, as paradoxical as this may sound. One great example of this is that when we are angry, we may have a strong urge to verbally hurt or attack the other person. In this state, we may feel like saying things simply because they will hurt the other person, not because they actually reflect our feelings, such as “I never loved you”, etc. And as much as we wish it weren’t the case, it seems to be part of human nature that it sometimes just “feels good” to criticize someone or yell at someone, regardless of whether we really believe the criticisms (take “Judge Judy”, for example, who seems to really enjoy telling people off). In other words, feeling like saying something and feeling that something are two different things. Continue reading →
Do you ever feel like you’re not doing everything you could to make your life the best it could be? Do you get that lousy feeling that you should have read a book on investing your money instead of surfing the web, or called a friend to catch up instead of watching TV, or gotten out of bed an hour earlier? I think I’ve been feeling that way for most of my adult life.
And, I actually think that this feeling is right — I think that very frequently I’m not in fact doing everything I could to make my life great.
So it seems like there are two problems here then:
Problem #1: A bad feeling that seems to say we’re not doing our best
Problem #2: Actually… not doing our best — resulting in lower productivity and behavior that is less than optimal for helping us reach our goals
Before we go on I want to clarify a few things that I don’t mean by “doing your best”:
I don’t mean doing everything that other people think you should be doing. This includes society, bosses, religion, parents, friends, moral rules, etc.. That is, of course, unless you happen to think that they’re right about something.
I don’t mean being a workaholic. I think the best life often involves working hard, but also enjoying yourself. And even the best way to be productive sometimes is to take breaks.
I don’t mean being successful. We only have limited knowledge, we can’t predict the future, there are many things beyond our control, etc., so all we can do (obviously) is the “best” we can do, given our limitations and what we know now. Doing the best that we can may be unsuccessful, and our “best” decisions may turn out badly. But, they’re our best shot at success.
We’re constantly making decisions — decisions about what to eat, which side of the street to walk on, what relationships to be in, whether to stay at our job or quit. In short, as long as we’re behaving (which is always), we’re making decisions about what behavior to carry out.
Much of the time, we just act “automatically”, without really thinking about our decisions. This is often a good thing, since if we thought about every single decision, we’d soon spend so much time thinking that we’d never get anything done. Imagine, for example, if you had to give serious thought to which shoe to tie first or whether to take a bite of your french fries or your hamburger next. In short, we couldn’t function if we had to give thought to every decision.
Conscious and unconscious
To digress for a moment (to give some background), I think it’s helpful to make a distinction between “conscious” and “unconscious” aspects of the brain. By this I simply mean that there’s a lot going on in your brain, and that much of what happens, happens outside of our awareness, i.e. unconsciously. For example, when you hear a sound, you can “just tell” where it comes from (as in “it’s coming from over there!”). In fact (and horrifyingly for some!), behind the scenes your brain is doing a lot of complex math to compare the sounds from your two ears to figure out where the source of the sound is. The mathematical analysis of the sounds is happening unconsciously, while the sense of “where the sound is coming from”, the result of that analysis, is present in consciousness. Continue reading →
In my view, anxiety has three purposes: 1) to make us pay attention to possible danger, 2) to motivate us to act so as to avoid that danger, and 3) to physically prepare our bodies to act.
Anxiety is very successful at carrying out these three purposes, by 1) drawing our attention to danger, 2) making us feel miserable until the danger is no longer a threat, and 3) pumping adrenaline, increasing our heart rate, and other physiological changes that prepare the body for action.
Since it helps us avoid negative outcomes, anxiety is in many ways a good thing. But in spite of its benefits, anxiety has its downsides as well:
It can continue to make us miserable even when we’re doing all that can be done
It can make us miserable about dangers that aren’t very important or which are extremely unlikely
It can actually make a negative outcome more likely (such as worrying about a presentation the next day making us unable to sleep the night before)
The physical changes caused by anxiety are often inappropriate for the actual danger faced (for example, a rapid heart rate today doesn’t help you face being laid off next month)
The physical changes can have negative long-term effects on our health (heart attacks, ulcers).
It’s all well and good to talk about trying to have a great relationship. But what do we mean by “great relationship”? Everyone probably has their own ideas about this, but since I think everything that matters is ultimately about feelings,
My working definition of a “great relationship” is one in which… you feel great and the other person feels great.
In other words, lots of really good feelings, not so many bad feelings. This might be simple, but I think it gets at what is really important. Relationships, like everything else, can be measured by how much they further our goal of just… being happy. So the next question is of course:
So what kinds of things cause good feelings in relationships?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and based on my own personal experience and what I’ve read, I’ve come up with six ideas — six things that I suspect make a big difference in whether a relationship has a lot of good feelings:
Here are two techniques for dealing with anxiety, which I’ve been putting into practice in my own life and have had some success with. Like most (all) anxiety techniques, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
Technique #1: This technique is based on the idea that anxiety is present when there is a possible danger in the environment, in order to make sure you are paying attention to the danger and doing everything in your power to prevent the danger from affecting you. If you can “satisfy” the anxiety by attending to the danger, taking appropriate measures to deal with it, and being convinced that you have done all you can do, the anxiety will no longer need to be there and can be reduced.
Name the danger. Often we have a feeling of anxiety without explicitly thinking about what we are anxious about. So the first step is to get specific about what we’re worried about — what is the possible danger? Sometimes there will be several dangers at the same time, in which case you should pick one to focus on first, and then repeat these steps with the remaining ones.
Figure out what you can and should do about the danger. The next step is to form a plan — what should you do about the danger? Sometimes the answer is “nothing”, which is okay. You may not know specifics about all that will have to be done, which is also okay — you just need an overall plan and next steps.
Decide to implement your plan. This step simply involves deciding that you will carry out your plan.
Write down any future actions you’ll need to remember. This can be in a “to do” list on paper or in a computer or your cell phone, etc. The important thing is that you no longer need to rely on anxiety to remind you. Continue reading →
There is a new study out which suggests that lack of good social relationships can actually be as detrimental to your health (measured by mortality rates) as being a smoker or an alcoholic! The study is actually a “meta-analysis”, meaning they looked at a number of other studies (almost 150), and analyzed the results of all of them to look for consistent patterns.
One big question is how social relationships affect health. The authors discuss several possibilities, such as the possibility that good social relationships improve immune functioning. But then again, there is still the question of how relationships might affect immune functioning. My own guess (which is certainly not original with me) is that when we’re in a certain emotional state, such as anxiety or depression or happiness, in addition to the feelings we experience there are also other physiological changes that accompany the feeling. For example, when we feel anxious, we also typically have a faster heart rate, sweating, etc. I suspect that these physiological changes have consequences for our long-term health.
Facts happen. But in order to know how to feel about the facts, we create “stories” — we decide which of the facts are important, and what the big picture is underlying the facts, and relate that to our own values. For example, stories might be things like whether we’re a worthwhile person, whether people respect us, whether other people are worth our time or reasonable, and so forth.
We may not think about this much, but I suspect that we are constantly, and often unconsciously, evaluating what happens and creating stories. I also imagine that these stories greatly influence our feelings, and thus our actions.
It may be that “the facts” by themselves aren’t so important when it comes to determining how we feel, but rather that they gain their power through the stories we tell about them. This might explain why something that seems minor to one person can cause another person to have an intense emotional reaction. We probably all have things that we’re especially sensitive about — it may be that we’re telling a “big story” about something that seems little to others. Continue reading →
Following up on what I mentioned in my last post about my own tendency to focus on getting unimportant details “just right” while neglecting more important things, my friend Brad Blanton at Radical Honesty likes to say that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly”. In other words, sometimes just getting something done is more important than doing a fantastic job.
Here is a video clip of Brad “selling” an audio version of his book, where he talks about the “poor quality” of the recording:
People who have been addicted to a substance know that it can be incredibly hard to break that addiction. Fundamentally, I think of addiction as a conflict between very strong feelings that shout “DO THIS!” and a “wiser” set of thoughts that says “this is a bad idea in the long run for reasons x, y, and z”.
People who haven’t dealt with substance addiction might think that thank god they don’t have to deal with such a problem. (And of course, they’re right!) But I would argue that *all* of us, in one way or another, have feelings that “push us around” in ways that a wiser part of ourselves suspects is not in our best interest.
For example, I sometimes spend a lot of time trying to get unimportant details “just right”, while neglecting more important things. Tonight I decided to work on this blog, and then proceeded to spend two hours adjusting the arrangement and spacing of some links I’m trying to add, even though I knew that it was much more important to work on adding content to the site through writing posts. But I felt compelled to work on the link positioning. Continue reading →