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Maps to Manage Your Mind Chatter, Part II: Tips from a Self-Taught Master

March 27th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“The Camp” Courtesy of Judy Fuller.

“What makes you think you can paint?  You’re not an artist.  You’re kidding yourself!”  This is Judy Fuller’s inner voice at two a.m., when she wakes up churning about a painting she’s working on.  Judy is a self-taught artist whose extraordinary, luminous landscapes of the Florida wetlands are sold for thousands of dollars at an upscale gallery in my neighborhood.

Judy’s bright smile, twinkling eyes, and obvious success might suggest that she never hears a mean-spirited voice like this.   Not true.  Like the rest of us, Judy is human.  Like the rest of us, her mind can spin out of control.

“What do you do when you hear that voice?” I asked.  We were both at a party in the gallery, and by chance, happened to begin chatting.

“I just tell myself that I’m tired, that I worked hard today, and that I deserve to rest now,” Judy tells me.  “I remind myself that I’ve worked through blocks like this before, and I remember how wonderful it feels when I finish a painting and it pleases me and I just know it’s beautiful. That’s the truth.  The voice in the middle of the night isn’t.  And I get up the next morning and go to work again.”

“I have a post-it on the studio light switch. ‘The painted ponies go up and down.’ I see it at night when I turn off the lights.  It prepares me to remember the truth if the voice comes in the middle of the night.”

Judy’s not only a self-taught artist; she’s also a self-taught coach, who coaches herself when she hears the nagging, nay-saying inner voice that keeps so many of us from our dreams.  She gently reminds herself of the truth.

Here’s exactly how Judy stops her mind-chatter from stopping her:

1.  Pay attention to what is happening. Judy didn’t avoid the voice. She didn’t surf the internet or eat a quart of Chunky Monkey ice cream straight out of the container.  It’s important not to distract yourself at this point.

2.  Be compassionate. She spoke to herself gently and kindly.  She didn’t make herself wrong for having the thought, and didn’t berate herself further.  In other words, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.

3.  Find “the why.” Judy found reasons why the harsh voice was acting out.  She was tired.  She had been working hard.  She had an artistic problem that was unsolved.  She was discouraged.  You can similarly ask yourself: why could this voice be speaking out?  What’s it afraid of?  What’s it trying to tell me?

4.  Find evidence that the critical message is untrue. Judy reminded herself that she’s heard from this voice before, that she produces many beautiful paintings and loves what she does, and that her work in on display in galleries and is purchased by others.  This kind of specific, detailed, truthful evidence is exactly what we need to find when we are disputing the mind chatter that threatens to derail us.

5.  Acknowledge the real truth. Judy remembered what is true for her and what that truth feels like–when she finishes a painting and sees its beauty, she feels it, too.  In those moments, there’s no doubt.  She knows she’s an artist.  When you land on the real truth, your feelings will shift.  It feels so much better.

6.  Give yourself an immediate, healthy solution. “I tell myself to rest, that I can come back to the painting later, that I’ve worked it enough for now,” Judy said. Taking a break from a problem is a proven strategy for moving through it.  So is resting.  Three slow, gentle breaths, a walk outside, or a bath with lavender oil are remedies that work, too.  With experimentation, you can find what works for you.

7.  Don’t give up. The next day, Judy went back to her work.  She didn’t believe the voice and didn’t let its message stop her.    You don’t have to, either. You don’t have to believe everything you hear, even if it’s coming from inside your own head.   That critical voice doesn’t mean you should give up your dreams–just go back to work.

It’s a fantastic example of masterful self-coaching.  The proof?  Her beautiful art exists on canvasses, not as unfulfilled dreams, existing only inside her head.

So, the next time a voice inside your head says you can’t have what your soul yearns for, remind yourself as Judy does, “The painted ponies go up and down.”

Tags: self-criticism · thinking · truth · Uncategorized

Why are women twice as depressed as men?

January 28th, 2011 · 17 Comments

It hit me like a bucket of ice-water in my face.  I was putting away a book this morning, and it fell open to this:  modern Western women have twice the rates of depression as men.

How could this be?  We have access to unprecedented independence, careers, education, birth control, therapy, and options unimaginable to prior generations.  What is getting to us?  What’s bugging us so much?

I began to read.

Could it be our hormones?  Nope.  While hormonal factors can play a role in feeling lousy, it’s not significant enough to account for the whopping difference between men and women.

Genetics?  Maybe we’re just predisposed for some ancient evolutionary reason?  That doesn’t explain it either.  While there is a tendency to pass on depression through the generations, careful genetic examination shows that it can’t account for such a wildly lopsided disproportion.

How about our willingness to talk about our depression more openly than men?  No, the two-to-one ratio shows up even when people who are very private about their internal states are studied.

Perhaps it’s because women go to therapy more than men, so it’s reported and studied more?  While we do, door-to-door surveys produce the same result.  Women not in therapy have twice the depression rates as men not in therapy.

Is it due to sex-based discrimination, or economic factors, since women tend to have worse jobs for less money? No.  Rich or poor, well-employed or unemployed, women are twice as depressed as men.

How about the multiple demands and roles that women deal with today—working plus tending children and maintaining a home?  This theory doesn’t pan out, either.  Working women are less depressed than stay-at-homes, who have fewer demands placed on them.

One by one, the possible culprits are eliminated by Martin Seligman in What You Can Change & What You Can’t, A Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Seligman is known as the “father of positive psychology” and has written and researched extensively on happiness and how to achieve it.  After shooting down all of the obvious possibilities, he offers three possible explanations that are all confirmed by social science.

Here’s what the evidence points to:

First, learned helplessness, a proven predictor of depression, is far more prevalent in women than in men.  We often feel we have no control over the outcome of a situation, even when we can control it, because we’ve “learned” that we are powerless.

We live in a culture that trains women to be bystanders.

From cradle to grave, Seligman says, women get a masterful education in helplessness—boys learn to be active and adventurous, girls to be passive and dependent.  Women who become wives and mothers are devalued by our culture, and women who don’t marry or don’t have children are perceived as out of place.

How about this one, sisters?  Women who achieve success or power are seen as tough, bitchy, and aggressive.  Man-like.  Who wants that? So why bother, we tell ourselves, and ignore the yearnings within our souls.

Since we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we tend to give up and stop trying.  We assume we are helpless when we are in fact, not.

Second, we ruminate more, we churn and worry about our upsets and their causes, way more than men do. We lose our jobs and want to know why, what we did wrong, what happened, how could we have prevented it, who didn’t like us, and on and on.  This kind of reflection is not useful and digs us into a deep emotional hole.  Men tend to ignore causation and exploration, and take action.  It may not be healthy action—they might get drunk, watch sports, or otherwise distract themselves.  But they don’t tend to churn about it inside.

Our inner worlds sound like this:  Will he call? Maybe he doesn’t like me.  What did I do wrong?  I said the wrong thing.  I wish she wasn’t upset.  How can I fix it?  I didn’t do enough.  I did too much.  I’m not enough.

A man’s inner world sounds like this:  Hmmm, wonder what’s in the fridge? TGIF. Can’t wait for the game tonight.  Maybe I’ll call that girl I went out with.

Think I’m kidding?  Ask a man.  I have.  Lots of times.  And they consistently tell me these kinds of answers.  Sure they worry, too.  Sure they ruminate.  But not like we do.

Third, (and this one was the big shocker for me, so buckle up, girlfriends), the futile pursuit of thinness. Yep.  We are chasing a biologically impossible ideal with such zeal that we have depressed ourselves in record numbers.  We hate our natural curves that much.

We strive to have an unnaturally thin body so excessively, fruitlessly, and unhealthily that we work ourselves up into staggering and unprecedented amounts of depression.

When boys approach puberty, hormones give them lean muscles; when girls arrive, we get body fat.  Guess what?  We need that extra fat to make estrogen and the female hormones that also bless us with smooth, soft skin, supple bodies, and babies and breast milk.  How do we respond to this gift?  We hate, starve, vomit, exercise, worry, lipo, pummel, and then overeat ourselves into massive depression.

We are literally brainwashed into thinking our natural beauty is ugly.

Here’s a powerful factoid:  all the world over, every culture on the planet that believes thin women are the ideal have women more prone to depression and eating disorders.  Every world culture that does not worship at the altar of the unnaturally thin female body has no eating disorders and no lopsided female-to-male depression.

Be clear about this one, please.  I’m not suggesting that overeating is an emotionally healthy option.  But torturing ourselves because we don’t have a body like a prepubescent teenager’s, loathing our beautiful, curvy, naturally soft bodies is futile and extremely self-destructive.  And, our obsession passes this viewpoint along to our daughters, who begin “dieting” practically as soon as they learn to read and write.

What’s the good news in all of this?

All three of these causes can be changed. Learned helplessness, rumination, and poor body image are all based on thinking patterns and false beliefs that we can learn to change. 

Isn’t that wonderful, amazing, fabulous news?  I’ll say it again.  The major causes of depression in modern Western women can be changed when our thinking and attitudes change. By changing something we have control over.

It’s not easy, but depression is worse. I’ve been there.

I don’t know about you, but learning that I was in control of most of the things that bugged and upset me was the single most empowering discovery I ever made. And I do not say that lightly.  I am an attorney.  When I practiced law, I won cases that impacted thousands of people’s lives.  I am a mother.  I gave birth to two children and connected with the raw power of my body’s torrential forces.  Both of those roles gave me tremendous feelings of power and joy.

But the power and joy available by managing my self-destructive thinking patterns has been beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, and beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Once I got the hang of it—with simple tools that are powerful, user-friendly, and available—my lifelong tendencies to feel helpless, to worry excessively, and to hate myself for not being built like a Barbie doll began to fade away.  So far, it hasn’t returned.

So what do you say?  Shall we declare a truce on ourselves and our bodies?  Shall we accept that some of us have breasts and hips and, ahem, muffin tops, and that’s okay?

And as for our learned helplessness and our excessive worrying, we have the power to change that, too.

So if you need help get it. A coach or a therapist can do wonders with stuck thinking patterns. If  you are prone to feeling low or prone to depression, or actually depressed, be sure that your recovery plan includes resources that help you manage your destructive thoughts.

Seligman’s research also confirms what my experience has taught me:  managing your thoughts manages your moods.  Our feelings are a direct result of our thinking.

Tags: change · depression · feelings · stress · thinking · transformation

Do Doubt and Fear Ever Go Away?

February 21st, 2009 · No Comments

darren-jumps1Is there a point at which we are so sublime and confident, that we can put ourselves into new challenges and not worry, not feel any fear, not have one thought that we might look foolish or screw up  or that our ideas might be rejected? Clients ask me this all the time. The answer–absolutely not.

The man in the photo calls himself Professor Splash. He holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for jumping over 35 feet into a kiddie pool holding 12 inches of water. That’s insane!

I had an opportunity to talk with him a couple of years ago and I asked him whether he was ever afraid when he did a jump.  “I’m scared out of my mind,” he told me.  “I just jump anyway.”  You can watch him set a world record here.

I attended a workshop once with the late Debbie Ford, who was a stunning, poised, bestselling author.  She asked the audience, “Do you think I am never scared?  I am scared all the time.  I just don’t let it stop me.”

Doubt and fear are widespread human responses to challenging situations.  After we’ve learned to see our limiting thought patterns and assumptions, they lose their power to stop us.  I might screw up, my idea is too crazy, it’s too risky—thoughts like these will likely pop up when we place ourselves at risk by doing something new, whenever we challenge our comfort zone.

We feel the old fears and hear the old worries when we take risks.  But we can recognize them for what they are—just thoughts.  And from this place, we can keep going. The fear and worry lose their power over us when we don’t let them stop us.

Being human means we will have doubts and we will always feel fear. And growth means that we don’t have to let doubt and fear stop us.

Tags: fear · risk · thinking

Roller Coaster

August 20th, 2008 · No Comments

When you’re disappointed, does your mood plunge downward like it’s on a roller coaster?  Yesterday, my new client, let’s call her Susan, had plummeted like she was on the Coney Island Cyclone. She’d sought coaching after a string of business failures.  She suspected she might be doing something to attract this pattern into her life.

In a voice awash with misery and despair, she told me how she’d been incredibly happy this morning at the prospect of landing a fat new contract for her business, but a half-hour before our appointment, she received an email that the deal had fallen through. She was crushed and depressed, and beating herself up.

“So what changed the way you feel?” I asked.

“The company changed its mind,” she stated dully.

“How would you feel right this minute if the email had gotten lost in the internet’s parallel universe, and you didn’t know about it?” I asked her.

“I’d feel great,” she said glumly, “at least until I found out.”

“So what really changed?” I asked.

With some coaching, Susan realized that her thoughts about herself had changed. When she believed she had the contract, she thought she was smart and competent and valued, and she felt energetic and excited about life. When she got the email, she told herself the company had rejected her and she was incompetent and useless. She became listless and empty.

As Susan discovered first-hand this morning, if we attach our happiness and self-worth to external circumstances, like a big contract, a promotion, or our children’s grades, we climb aboard life’s roller coaster. When circumstances are favorable, we are high, excited, exhilarated; when things change, we nose-dive to the bottom.

We hop on a roller coaster to take this ride when we lose touch with our true nature, what Martha Beck calls our Essential Self. Our Essential Self knows that we are always sparkling jewels, treasures of infinite value and worth. This has nothing to do with success in any external form–contracts or promotions or our kids’ grades or any other person or circumstance outside of us.

When we lose touch with that part of us, that all-knowing, peaceful, secure place deep in our hearts, we are at the mercy of life’s roller coaster. Our self-worth gets buried by an avalanche of neediness and insatiable hunger for positive attention and rewards from others.

People change their minds, contracts fall through, and others get selected for partnerships, promotions and awards. That is the nature of life—change and unexpected circumstances are the only constants we can count on.

When we are in deep touch with our value, our worth, and the joy that lives deep inside us, we survive setbacks and challenges with peace and security. A contract can fall through, and we can put it into perspective. We’re disappointed, of course, but we can regain our positivity and hope, and we don’t slide into abusive or self-defeating thought patterns.

Sure, it feels fantastic to land a big contract. But when we are in deep contact with our Essential Self, we never lose touch with our worth and our value, and we can regain our energy and hope. We might even understand that the loss of the contract could, in some as yet unfathomable way, be in our best interests. We save the roller coaster ride for fun and games at an amusement park. And, we realize that the next gift from life may be just an email away.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re on the Roller Coaster

1. Are you having any negative thoughts about yourself?

2. Is this an honest, factual assessment of this situation?

3. What happens to you when you hold on to these negative thoughts?

4. Imagine being in the present situation without the negative thoughts and judgments. Does anything shift for you?

5. Is there a stress-free reason to keep the negative thoughts about yourself?

6. What is an honest assessment of the situation that doesn’t include any negative or abusive thoughts about yourself or others?

7. Does this change the way you feel?

Tags: self-criticism · self-love · self-worth · thinking