Jun 23

“Stand Firm” Against Unhelpful Self-Help?

Stand Firm is an exhilarating broadside against the intense modern pressure to do more, be more, to become happier and more productive, and to “find yourself.” Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

Svend Brinkmann, PhD, is a Danish philosopher and psychologist who believes, according to the publisher of his new book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze Stand Firmthat “(t)he secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others.”

A Psychology Today post by Brinkmann spells out his main recommendations. Click on the link for more specifics:

  1. “Cut out the navel-gazing: The more you gaze lovingly at your navel, the worse you will feel. Doctors call it the health paradox…”
  2. “Focus on the negative in your life: We have been told to be positive for decades, but it doesn’t help…”
  3. “Put on your No hat: Saying ‘I don’t want to do that’ conveys strength and integrity…”
  4. “Suppress your feelings…Adults should choose dignity over authenticity.”
  5. “Sack your coach: Coaching and therapy have become ubiquitous development tools in our accelerating culture…”
  6. “Read a novel – not a self-help book…”
  7. “Dwell on the past: If you think things are bad now, just remember that they can always get worse. And probably will…”

Although I support most of the above, I’m putting on my No hat to the idea of sacking your therapist—unless, of course, he or she isn’t helping you.

A sampling of Stand Firm quotes, the first of which are courtesy of the book review by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz):

I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it because that’s how we understand the world.

Life is wonderful from time to time, but it’s also tragic. People die in our lives, we lose them, if we have only been accustomed to being allowed to have positive thoughts, then these realities can strike us even more intensely when they happen—and they will happen.

And the following Stand Firm quotes come from Sophia Dembling‘s review (Psych Central):

If others can’t be sure I will be the same tomorrow as I am today and was yesterday, then they have no reason to trust me or that I will do what I promise and otherwise live up to my obligations. And if I don’t know my own past, if I don’t try my best to establish a link between yesterday, today and tomorrow, then others have no reason to trust me. If I don’t have what [French philosopher Paul] Ricoeur calls “self-constancy,” then neither I nor others will be able to count on me.

Very few will say out loud that their illness has been awful from start to finish and that they would rather not have had to go through it. A typical book title might be How I Survived Stress — And What It Taught Me, but you’re unlikely to find a book called I’m Still Stressed — It’s an Unending Nightmare. Not only do we suffer stress or illness and eventually die, we’re also supposed to think it’s all so enlightening and rewarding.

Dembling concludes, “[Brinkmann] dishes up this negativity with a wink, while cautioning that adopting the philosophy shouldn’t ‘degenerate into nihilistic pessimism that leads to resignation, ennui or actual depression. Rather, it should lead to you accepting your responsibilities and duties, your lot in life’.”

Jun 21

“Insight” and Self-Awareness: How to Develop It

The journey to self-awareness is one that lasts a lifetime — it requires courage, energy, and commitment to see ourselves more clearly. And though the process is complex, it always starts with a simple (but not easy) decision: to question our assumptions about ourselves, to take charge and proactively examine how we’re seen, and to pair our quest for the truth with a positive mind-set and self-acceptance. In a nutshell, we start by making the decision to become braver but wiser. Insight authorTasha Eurich, interviewed by Science of Us

As it turns out, solid information about the development of insight and self-awareness is pretty scarce.

One article, though, by leadership expert Bill George, Psychology Today, offers some basic first steps:

  1. Understand Your Life Story—Otherwise known as your “narrative identity,” which “frames both your current actions and your future goals.”
  2. Create a Daily Habit of Self-reflection—At least 20 minutes a day do an activity such as journalling, taking a walk, meditation, or whatever gives you the time and ability to focus on important thoughts and feelings.
  3. Seek Honest Feedback—Otherwise we’re likely to have blind spots about ourselves.

And now there’s a new book by organizational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich called Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life, called by its publisher the “first definitive book on the science of self-awareness.” 

Eurich states that while 95% of us think we’re self-aware—get this—only 10 to 15% actually are.

Furthermore, as told to Melissa Dahl, Science of Us, there are two types of self-awareness: internal and external, the latter being “knowing how other people see me.” The unfortunate truth is that other people are often more accurate about us than we are about ourselves.

One of the interesting features of Eurich’s website is an insight quiz that only requires about five minutes of your time. The catch? You’ll need a friend or someone in your life willing to answer the same questions privately about you and report back. See this link to participate.

Meanwhile, how can we develop increased self-awareness? Introspection can be helpful but doesn’t always actually lead to insight. Nor do journalling and therapy always give us what we need in this regard, says Eurich. Guess you’ll have to read the book to get the answers.

Below, a brief book trailer:

Along with many other reviewers, writer Chip Heath praises Insight: “Think of the most cluelessly unselfaware person you know: your boss, annoying neighbor, brother-in-law. How can we avoid being that person? And teach our kids to avoid being that person as well? Eurich summarizes the fascinating science about self insight, but–perhaps more importantly–she studies admirable individuals who are self-aware in a way that is applauded by their peers. You’ll benefit from knowing what they know. Buy a copy for yourself and buy another to leave, anonymously, on your boss’s desk.”

Jun 19

“The Daily Stoic”: A Path Toward Living Well

Last year’s The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman supports the idea that many of us are continually seeking better ways to do our lives. From the publisher:

The Daily Stoic offers a daily devotional of Stoic insights and exercises, featuring all-new translations from Emperor Marcus Aurelius, playwright Seneca, and slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus as well as lesser-known luminaries like Zeno, Cleanthes, and Musonius Rufus. Every day of the year, you’ll find one of their pithy, powerful quotations as well as historical anecdotes, provocative commentary, and a helpful glossary of Greek terms. By following these teachings over the course of a year (and, indeed, for years to come), you’ll find the serenity, self-knowledge, and resilience you need to live well.

According to Maria Popova, Brainpickings“Their selections are temporally and thematically organized across the twelve months: from clarity in January and the passions in February to acceptance in November and mortality in December.”

Holiday is also the author of the popular book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014), and both authors of The Daily Stoic have a website of the same name with valuable info.

For instance, there’s an article about the three basic “spiritual exercises” regularly practiced by the Stoics:

  1. Practice misfortune.
  2. Train perception to avoid good and bad.
  3. Remember—it’s all ephemeral.

Quotes offered by them that typify these concepts are as follows, in the same order as above:

  • It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. Seneca
  • Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been. Marcus Aurelius
  • Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. Marcus Aurelius

Other quotes from The Daily Stoic, retrieved from Popova’s article as well as from Goodreads:

  • All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way. Marcus Aurelius
  • If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself. Epictetus
  • There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself. Seneca
  • When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need. Epictetus
  • Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance. Marcus Aurelius

In addition to the Stoic philosophers cited above are such followers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill. Moreover, Stoicism is seemingly experiencing a contemporary revival of sorts linked to psychology and therapy. (See my previous post.)

And if you’re interested in reading more quotes, go to this link at the Daily Stoic website.

Jun 08

“Real Boy”: Check It Out on PBS (June 19th)

REAL BOY is an intimate story of a family in transition. As 19-year-old Bennett Wallace navigates early sobriety, late adolescence, and the evolution of his gender identity, his mother makes her own transformation from resistance to acceptance of her trans son. Along the way, both mother and son find support in their communities, reminding us that families are not only given, but chosen. Realboymovie.com

An award-winning 2016 documentary from filmmaker Shaleece Haas that hasn’t yet received wide exposure but has been seen worldwide at various festivals, Real Boy will soon be available on PBS. Check your local listings, but it seems to be slated in many markets for June 19th at 10 PM.

As tagged on the movie’s website, it’s A son’s transition. A mom’s transformation. Four years in the lives of a transgender teen male and his mom.

David Monaghan, Head Stuff, calls Real Boy “sweet and occasionally hard-hitting, offering viewers a multifaceted coming-of-age narrative that never succumbs to sensationalism.”

In the brief trailer below, Bennett states, “I am a boy with the wrong body parts.”

Much of Bennett’s support comes from his older friend Joe, whom he met at a retreat for sober youth. They also have in common that they’re both transgender and have a strong interest in music.

The following line from a Real Boy review resonates with me, as I’ve heard the same thing in my office: “Parents in support groups all over the country have often said, ‘I would have rather my child come out as gay instead of transgender,’ and Ben’s mom is no different.”

But Suzy loves her son and eventually is seen in the clip below accompanying Ben to his gender reassignment surgery. From the description of this video:

Bennett enters the hospital for his gender surgery and is both touched and surprised that his mom Suzy came to be with him for support, despite her own reservations. She then gets supportive advice from another mom whose son made the same transition, and who reassures Suzy that Bennett will find the right person for him. ‘We don’t have to understand it completely but we have to be there, love them and support them,’ she tells Suzy. ‘There’s so many other people in the world who want to bring them down; we have to make sure we’re not those people.’

A significant part of this true story is that both Ben and his mom find support along the way, which is usually sorely needed when a family is experiencing transitioning. Whereas for trans kids and teens YouTube videos on related topics are often a great starting place, parents might turn to a PFLAG chapter nearby, use pertinent reading materials, or see a trans-informed therapist, among other alternatives.

Jun 05

Living With Anxiety: Five Memoirs to Consider

Living with anxiety has been the topic of several well-received memoirs in recent years. Five to consider, listed from newest to oldest:

I. Andrea Petersen, On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety (May, 2017)

Psychologist David H. Barlow: “Everyone dealing with anxiety—the common cold of mental disorders—will benefit from the important information in this entertaining and erudite reflection on coping with the burden of anxiety.”

What Petersen recently told John Williams, New York Times, about her research regarding treatment issues:

…The two main evidence-based treatments are cognitive behavioral therapy [C.B.T.] and antidepressive medications, generally S.S.R.I.s [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of antidepressant]. About half the people with anxiety disorders who do a course of C.B.T. — about 12 to 15 sessions with a therapist — get clinically significant relief. About a third of people with anxiety disorders don’t respond to S.S.R.I.s, and there are others who can’t tolerate the side effects. So we need new treatments. Part of it is a lack of funding. One scientist at Harvard told me anxiety hasn’t been taken as seriously partly because it’s a normative emotion: We all experience it. So that may have influenced this idea that it’s not a big deal. But researchers are also finding that anxiety disorders are thought of as gateway illnesses. They can lead to depression, substance-use disorders and suicide.

II. Cathy DonaldsonCaging the Anxiety Monster: A Memoir (February, 2017)

Donaldson is a writer who was not only living with anxiety but plagued by panic attacks before getting the intensive help she needed. From the publisher:

In Caging the Anxiety Monster, writer, mother, and happiness enthusiast Cathy Donaldson describes how anxiety and depression upended her world, led her to the psych ward, and ultimately forced her to discover ways—and create some of her own—to confine her ‘anxiety monster’ and keep the fiend under lock and key.

III. Kat KinsmanHi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves (2016)

As Kinsman has stated (CNN.com), “If depression is, as Winston Churchill famously described, a ‘black dog’ that follows the sufferer around, anxiety is a feral cat that springs from nowhere, sinks its claws into skin and hisses invective until nothing else exists.”

Behavioral therapy has helped her, and some other things haven’t so much:

Anti-anxiety medications work beautifully for millions of people. The withdrawal from a particularly wicked one nearly ended me, and the brain zaps (those are sharp, horrifying electrical currents you can physically feel inside your head) and metabolic sluggishness increasingly outweighed any benefits while I was on it. Perhaps I will change my mind someday, but for now that’s not an option.
The gym can be useful, but it’s on the other side of that damned door. So are the much-vaunted yoga and meditation classes that inevitably make me feel as if I’ve failed for being insufficiently zen and relaxed.

IV. Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (2014)

Stossel has been living with anxiety since early childhood. Although medications, therapy, and particularly meditation help, “none of these treatments has fundamentally reduced the underlying anxiety that seems hardwired into my body and woven into my soul and that at times makes my life a misery.”

Booklist: “Tying together notions about anxiety culled from history, philosophy, religion, sports, and literature with current neuropsychiatric research and his extensive personal experience, Stossel’s book is more than an astounding autobiography, more than an atlas of anxiety. His deft handling of a delicate topic and frustrating illness highlights the existential dread, embarrassment, and desperation associated with severe anxiety yet allows room for resiliency, hope, transcendence.”

V. Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (2012)

The author: “I’ve known anxiety for most, maybe all, of my life. The condition is genetic. My father was anxious. My mother was anxious. My grandparents were anxious. Probably my ancestors were all anxious…”