Peeking Behind the Curtain: It’s not ALL Fun and Games!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve seen some funny posts circulating social media about the discrepancy between the perception we might have of someone’s life based on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and the reality of their life in true form. While there’s humor there to be sure, we might find ourselves a little bummed out if we are inclined to chronically compare our own reality to the social media version of the lives of others.

I spent the weekend spectating at the CrossFit Games, specifically as a “Filly Fan,” rooting on my good friend and business partner, Marcus Filly. When you’re a spectator at the CrossFit Games, you get to witness amazing feats of human performance by athletes like Marcus who are pushing themselves to the limits. You are privy to the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to say.

If you follow me on social media via Psychologywod or simply as Allison Belger, you know that I am currently committed to a fundraiser called Juggling for Jude. My 9-year-old daughter, Hollis, is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. She is keeping a blog about her experiences, and she posts videos of her daily personal bests, as well as pertinent photos. At the time of my writing this article, she has raised nearly $13,000 in five short weeks. Her juggling skills are legit, with a record of 326, alternating feet. In the photos and videos we post, she is usually smiling (case in point the photo below with her holding a newspaper article about her efforts).  While she does acknowledge the challenges of her daily efforts and the fatigue that sometimes sets in–especially after a long day of camp–her blog content is mostly positive.

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Does this mean that Juggling for Jude is an endeavor marked only by good times, wide grins, and a happy camper? No. The truth is that behind the scenes, Hollis experiences moments of doubt, of not wanting to juggle, of feeling pressure to perform, and of simply being tired. The pressure is especially significant because she knows that most, if not all, of the kids at St. Jude for whom she is juggling would trade places with her in a heartbeat; she is lucky to have her health, let alone her talent for soccer. This is quite a bit of content for the psyche of a nine-year-old to manage.

At the CrossFit Games, the general aesthetic of the athletes, indeed of the entire event, is one of human beauty in motion. We see tan skin, defined muscles, bodies that move gracefully and skillfully while taking on the most demanding of physical challenges performed on visually pleasing and perfectly constructed stages.   The Reebok apparel worn by the athletes is lovely and colorful, highlighting and neatly showcasing the physical specimens. Athletes are often smiling before, during, and after their workouts, and even when things don’t go as well as planned.  A hallmark of the Games is that it is a showcase of considerable sportsmanship; there is rarely a public display of anything but appreciation for participating.

Like Juggling for Jude, this is all something to celebrate. However, since Psychologywod is about digging beneath the surface for personal growth, I’m here to suggest that, like Hollis who is juggling for sick kids, even the graceful athletes at the CrossFit Games, the gifted soccer players we watched at the World Cup, or the elite and sponsored athletes in your sport of choice, have behind-the-scenes moments that aren’t often reflected in their social media streams and public displays.   Beyond the obvious moments we might imagine that involve draining training sessions marked by physical pain and mental challenges, there may be moments of anger, irritability, and a desire to quit. There may be feelings of having been cheated by a judge or referee and a resentment of others who weren’t. There may be self-doubt and questioning of a coach or training plan. And there’s always the possibility of burnout, when the drive and desire all but disappear. These moments don’t “sell” well in social media, so you won’t see them often. But I’m here to say that they are likely experienced at least some of the time by every one of your favorite athletes. Like you, they are human beings with complicated systems.

So the next time you’re struggling with training for a sport or your daily grind at work, or your relationship, or your fight to be fitter, keep in mind that you’re not alone.  Most people don’t post photos of their bedhead or their look of disdain when arguing with a loved one. Don’t be fooled.  You are simply privy to the parts of your own experience whose counterparts in others you don’t get to see. Like you, they must fight to be better and to persevere through tough times. Like you, they feel pressure and pain; they just might not tweet about it or post an Instagram photo expressing it. And that’s ok. Just be sure you realize that your personal, internal social media stream is authentic and complete, unlike the published, filtered versions of others you might see on your computer. Keep fighting the good fight, and know you’re not alone.

 

*If you’d like to donate to St. Jude on behalf of Juggling for Jude, please go here to do so.  Thank you in advance–every bit helps this amazing place!*

Related reading from the archives:

http://psychologywod.com/2013/11/24/how-well-do-you-really-know-those-joneses-anyway/

http://psychologywod.com/2014/04/13/hanging-in-the-here-and-now-you-cant-always-be-your-personal-best/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/08/04/face-your-dark-side-and-move-on-you-are-not-the-sum-total-of-your-imperfect-thoughts/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/03/25/had-a-bad-day-now-what/

 

 

Be Like a Celebrity, and Make Someone’s Day.

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These days, with so much happening on social media and so many work and social connections being made instantaneously through the click of a mouse, networking has become increasingly relevant in our world. It’s long been true that having connections in a certain field was helpful to propel you forward and that knowing people “in high places” gave you an upper hand socially and with work aspirations. However, with the greater level of access we have to people via the internet nowadays, it seems that upper hand might be within reach to more of us.

I’ve always thought that one of the coolest parts about being a celebrity would be the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Notwithstanding all of the challenges, complications, and hard work that comes with being a famous person in our culture, the upside to me seems to be an increased capacity for helping others. Celebrities can help fundraise for great causes, and they can visit sick kids and make wishes come true (if only they could heal them, too). I’ve reached out to some stars in the world of professional soccer these past couple of weeks, in order to help my daughter’s Juggling for Jude summer fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. So far, the response has been great, and each time I’ve gotten a retweet or a Facebook post promoting her fundraiser, I’ve felt the same way: it’s so great when people in a position like that of a pro athlete step up and help when asked to do so, even if by a total stranger like me.

I’m writing about this to encourage us all to keep in mind that we can ALL be helpful to someone. It doesn’t take celebrity status to make a difference. I’m not talking charity here—that’s a topic for another article. I’m talking about the kind of networking and support or encouragement we can all provide to someone who, relative to ourselves, could benefit from the position we’re in. Maybe you have a friend whose kid is interested in science, and you’re a science teacher. You might offer to bring that kid to work with you one day, to see what it’s like to be a science teacher. Maybe you run a chain of grocery stores, and you know of a young person trying to get her product into the market. Talk to her about the industry. Know a friend struggling with getting a publisher for his first novel? Hook him up with your college roommate, now a publisher, via Facebook. Drive by a lemonade stand on your way to work and have that moment of guilt that you don’t stop? Next time, stop. Throw in an extra dollar and be on your way.

From the smallest gestures at the lemonade stand to the biggest connections that land people in movies or the job of a lifetime, each of us can make a difference for someone. Make use of the skills, personal connections, and other resources at your beck and call, and you just might make someone’s day. Come to think of it, you might change the trajectory of their future so they become a celebrity one day; hopefully, they’ll remember those who helped them, and they’ll pay it forward with an even greater result.

Let it Flow: The Importance of Losing Yourself in a Pursuit.

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I tend to be someone who jumps with a vengeance into projects that interest me. Slightly obsessive by nature (thanks, Dad) and usually outcome oriented, I can bust out work with great intensity when something is important to me.  I’m currently focused on helping our younger daughter with an inspiring summer project called Juggling for Jude.  If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably seen my posts about it. The gist is that Hollis is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and in just over three weeks, she’s already raised more than $8,000!  No small feat for her small feet (sorry, I couldn’t resist)!

After spending a couple of hours yesterday blasting various social media channels and emailing influential people hoping to help Hollis take this effort to the next level, I realized how quickly time had passed and how unaware I was that I was doing “work.” It was more like my brain and body had been on autopilot; while productivity was great, conscious effort was minimal.

Last week I read a book called The Rise of Superman, which had been given to me by my friend, Steve Crane, whose story I’ve told before. Steve is an ultra runner who has extensive experience with various mindsets that allow him to do amazing things.  The Rise of Superman describes how extreme athletes, whose lives are risked in their pursuits and who accomplish physical feats that seem impossible, access a state of “Flow.”  Flow, a term originally coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is defined as a state of being marked by total focus and complete absorption leading to an emotional experience of joy, pleasure, and something approaching ecstasy.  Notably, during “flow,” there is a lack of self-consciousness and a lack of awareness of the passage of time.

While achieving a true state of “flow” might be a beneficial goal for the intense or elite athletes among us (a topic for another article), my focus here is how that same lack of self-consciousness and self analysis can also benefit us in our more mundane, less risky pursuits. We may not be scaling mountains, surfing killer waves, or competing at the highest level of sport, but our efforts are still important and meaningful.

When we are caught up in self-criticism, self-doubt, or simply a high degree of self-awareness, we may limit our capacity for productivity. By analyzing our every move (considering, for example, what our co-workers will think of us and our work), we are unlikely to think as freely or with as much focus as we could without these concerns. Similarly, if we consider how we move physically when others are watching us learn a new skill, versus how we might move when we feel confident and uninhibited, the analogy is powerful.

I’ve written before about the downside of conscious processing when it is utilized after it has served its purpose.  The idea, in a nutshell, is that when we are learning new physical skills, we learn best by engaging in a conscious and deliberate analytical process with each step of the movement.  However, once we have achieved a certain level of competency, we need to just let our body do its thing.

This week’s message is to apply this construct to all of our endeavors: In the midst of the deliberate and well-thought-out work we do, we should allow ourselves–at least occasionally—to lose track of time and of our self. This is not the same as getting lost in a great book or an exciting movie; I’m talking about losing yourself while simultaneously being productive in some important way. If you don’t have moments in your life where your passion for a project, work, or an endeavor of some kind takes you away from self-awareness, deliberate analysis, and the passage of time, it might be time to search for something that will.  It’s a powerful thing to experience what it’s like to be inspired–to immerse yourself so fully in something that only later do you realize how involved you’ve been and how much time has elapsed.  Trust in the process, enjoy the “work,” and the positive outcomes will follow, maybe even in ways that far exceed your expectations.

If you’d like to help Juggling for Jude raise money for St. Jude Hospital, please donate here.  Every bit helps!  Thank you!

Related reading from the archives:

http://psychologywod.com/2013/07/28/passion-find-it-live-it-just-dont-confuse-it-with-success/

http://psychologywod.com/2013/04/28/have-an-audience-how-do-you-handle-the-pressure/

 

Preparation and Outcomes: Shockingly, These are Related!

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By. Dr. Allison Belger

Three days before her last day of sixth grade, my older daughter forgot to bring her lunch to school.  It was up to me to get it to her, and that meant a longer-than-expected bike ride (my gear shift broke), a rush to work, and a grouchy mood.  I was annoyed.  Upon reflection about an hour after that rocky start to my day, I realized that the forgotten lunch had almost nothing to do with my daughter and everything to do with me.  You see, for the past eight years, I’ve been packing her lunch, placing it in her backpack, and sending her on her way. It wasn’t she who forgot her lunch last week.  I did.  I left it in the refrigerator, instead of placing it in her backpack as I usually do.

I’ve written before about taking responsibility for ourselves and about being accountable for our own actions and behaviors.  This time, my message is about taking responsibility for our outcomes as they relate to our preparation.  In the example of my daughter and her forgotten lunch, my preparation was flawed; I can’t expect her to suddenly remember her own lunch – a desired outcome–after thousands of days of packing it for her.

What we do each day matters: how we train, the way we relate to others, what we eat, how we spend our resources.  We are constantly creating future outcomes in our lives.  We cannot, then, be surprised, when the outcomes in our relationships and performance don’t turn out the way we’d like if we haven’t done the right kind of work and preparation.

Of course some things are beyond our control, and all outcomes are not simply the direct result of our efforts (wouldn’t that be nice).  Other forces are at play, and as human beings, we need to accept this fact while doing what we can to steer the trajectory of our future.

Don’t be surprised, then, if the patterns you’ve created persist. If, for example, you’ve paid all the bills ever since you’ve lived with your partner, don’t be shocked if you get slammed with a late fee when you forget to pay, and he doesn’t pick up the slack.  If you’ve been intimidated by a boss and have consistently held back at meetings, don’t be shocked if she doesn’t ever ask for your opinion.  If your workouts have lacked intensity for quite some time, or you’ve been skipping skill days, don’t suddenly go questioning your coach when you perform poorly in a competition.

There are always reasons in life for a less-than-desirable outcome. Blaming others for acting consistently in response to your repetitive behaviors is foolish; instead, you might try to figure out why you’ve set things up the way you have.  Maybe you have a need to be needed, so you’ve taken on the task of paying the bills for your partner.  Maybe you lack self-confidence, so you’ve been reluctant to speak up in front of your boss.  Perhaps you’re having trouble letting go of your little girl, so you’ve packed her lunch far beyond the time when she could do it herself.  Maybe you’re experiencing burnout in your training, and you’re having trouble admitting that it may be time to take a break.

What we do and how we act today affects the outcomes of tomorrow.   Conscious and unconscious forces are always at play in the choices we make. The more in touch we become with our motivations and behaviors, the more likely we are to create positive patterns and desired outcomes. Today is a good time to start. This means no lunch-packing for me this summer!

****PLEASE VISIT JUGGLING FOR JUDE to find out how you can support St. Jude Children’s Hospital via a 9-year-old’s soccer juggling skills! Every bit of money helps children with cancer receive cutting-edge treatment at an amazing place.  Thanks for your support!

The Next Generation of Philanthropy

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By Dr. Allison Belger

In lieu of an article this week, I’m instead highlighting a fabulous fundraising effort called JUGGLING FOR JUDE.   This summer, my 9-year-old daughter, Hollis, an avid soccer player, will be using her soccer juggling skills to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been touched by the St. Jude “commercials,” chronicling stories of children with cancer and how they and their families found solace and top-notch medical care at St. Jude.  I would make sure that my parents donated to St. Jude every year; somehow through their donation, I felt I was doing a little something to help those incredibly brave kids I saw on the television.

Now a mom of two girls, I can’t fathom the challenges faced by parents whose kids end up at St. Jude.  Helping my daughter take on this fundraising effort is, once again, my small way of doing what I can.  Encouraging our children to make use of their skills, talents, and other resources for the benefit of those less fortunate is a great parenting act.  It’s not always easy in our very busy and full lives, but the smallest efforts can sometimes make the biggest differences!

I hope you’ll join Hollis this summer via her JUGGLING FOR JUDE fundraiser.  Please spread the word on Facebook and by sharing the link to her blog, where she explains what she’s up to and where her St. Jude personal fundraising page can be accessed.

Thanks for your support!

Where has all the Playdough Gone? A Father’s Day Reminder to Stop and Smell the Roses.

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Grandfather bliss. New York.  Winter, 2005. 

Happy Father’s Day to my wonderful father, whose poignant insights appear at the end of this article.

*THIS IS A RE-POST FROM FATHER’S DAY, 2013*

By Dr. Allison Belger

“Impromptu pep talk today: live it up, you guys–there’s no playdough in first grade.”

This was a status update posted on Facebook last week by Sarah Buckley, a friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher.  She was recounting her directive to her soon-to-be first-grade students during their final days as kindergarteners.  The message was this: enjoy the unstructured playtime inherent in kindergarten while you can.  First grade’s a bitch (that part was my interpretation, but you get the idea).  She was telling them to soak in the ease of kindergarten, because different expectations and challenges will kick in during first grade, and things like playdough and free time may be a thing of the past.  Later that night, my older daughter, age ten and heading into sixth grade, was lamenting the impending doom that will be classroom travel in school next year.  This is a kid who loves stability and the comfort of a home base at school; the idea of class travel and teacher differentiation for academic subjects does not thrill her.

These two things got me thinking about why we have such a difficult time appreciating what we have in the moment; it is only when goodness is gone that we realize how fortunate we’ve been.  One of the points of childhood, in my mind, is freedom from recognizing the goodness of our situation.  Indeed, a sign of a healthy childhood is the absence of thought about how things are going and how “good” one has it.  If a child wonders frequently about whether or not he or she is having a good childhood, chances are that he or she is not. A good childhood simply exists.  It does not need to be determined by the child in question.

But beyond the bliss of childhood freedoms, there’s the real notion that we, as adults, are often challenged to appreciate ourselves, our situations, our talents, our possibilities in the moment when they are with us.  All too often, it takes the loss of one of these things to force us to acknowledge how well we had things previously.

Physical appearance is an easy example of this scenario.  How often do we find a million faults with how we look—our weight, our hair, our height, the size of our breasts, the way our knees gather fat?  But years later, we look back at pictures lamenting that the good looks we once had have slipped away.  In the moment, we find fault, but later, we reflect with a sense of loss, acknowledging our former beauty, our vibrancy, our appeal.  I can remember meeting a woman in her late 70’s at a school pick-up (my daughter was five and this woman’s grandson was in her kindergarten class).  The woman gave me a nice compliment about my looks, and I made some kind of self-deprecating remark about how tired I looked–the result of having a five and three-year-old at home–instead of responding with a gracious ‘thank you.’  She quickly and rightfully took the opportunity to school me in the appreciation of beauty and youth and cautioned me that some day I’ll look back at a picture from a day like today when I look “tired,” and I’ll be able to see how beautiful I was.  Smack-in-the-face life lesson, and I’ll not soon forget it.  Of course, it was about much more than appearances.

These days, I’m in the throes of planning the Nor’Easter Masters Competition, a weekend fitness competition for athletes over 40 who do CrossFit.  In my experience as an aging athlete (aging used relatively as I’m 43) and with other Masters athletes, the concept of seizing the moment and making the most of what we have is part of the Masters gig.  Nagging injuries and the fear of a significant setback are omnipresent.  The balance between pushing to one’s limits to get stronger, faster, and better while recognizing one’s limitations and stepping back as needed, is a tricky one to navigate.  What strikes me in the context of this article is how challenging it often is for older athletes to appreciate how much we are able to do.  There is so much focus on the “What if’s” and the “I used to’s” and not enough focus on the “How cool is it that I can’s.”  It often takes a debilitating injury or major surgery for someone to appreciate what they had, just days earlier.  I’m guilty of this, myself.  One strategy that has helped me do some good-old-fashioned appreciating is to note a positive takeaway after each time I workout.  I’m not a journal person, but if I were, I’d write it there.  For me, it’s enough to make a mental note of one thing that went well for me at the gym, on the trail, or at the track.  For you, it might be on the golf course or the tennis court or in the water.  Whatever your domain, make sure you’re not focusing solely on the things you wish you could do better or on how much better, faster, or stronger you were when you were younger.  Make a note of a positive each day, be thankful, and move on.

Seizing the day is an age-old challenge; the struggle to live in the moment and appreciate one’s current blessings is part of being human.  It often takes getting to the next stage in our lives before we can appreciate the goodness of the current one.  Like the kindergartners who will later appreciate their playdough time, athletes often appreciate the health and abilities only after that wellness and those capacities have diminished.

Maybe this struggle is all a function of the need for comparison—we can’t possibly know the abundance of what we have until we have less of it.  We cannot understand the gift of a healthy body until it is compromised by age or injury or illness.  We don’t truly appreciate the joy of a steady paycheck unless we have lost it.  We may take for granted the devotion of, and attention from, a lover until we long for a similar connection later, when we are alone.  We can’t fully comprehend the freedoms of childhood until we look back as adults, tethered by adult responsibilities.

Perhaps the richest example of moments slipping away, only to be cherished at a later date, comes in the realm of parenting.  Human beings start life hopelessly dependent on caregivers.  Unlike many species, we are born far from possessing independent ambulating, feeding, and general living skills.  The complicated human psychological/emotional element adds an intense dimension that makes the rearing of children an incredibly daunting task—rich and rewarding beyond measure, but also heart-wrenchingly challenging.  The overwhelming challenges of parenthood, I think, make full appreciation of the moments involved nearly impossible; there is simply too much to do.  We are up at night, bleary-eyed while nursing and feeding, yearning for a full night’s sleep, only later to crave a late-night cuddle when the teens are out with friends.  We bitch about the demands of homework and driving from one activity to another, only later to long for even the slightest window into what our kids are actually up to at college.  I can’t even begin to imagine what a parent goes through when something goes very wrong for a child.  That kind of yearning is beyond comprehension and the scope of this article, but even when development and the life cycle go as planned, there is much we wish away, only to want it back in later years.

In honor of Father’s Day, I’ll end this piece with some unedited thoughts from my father, now in his mid-seventies, whose own father died suddenly at age 52, when my father was 18.  My parents live in New York, while my family lives in California:

“Your grandmother always would tell me how wonderful the school years were – despite homework, test and papers.  She told me I would long for those days.  Never believed her.  Never lived in the moment.  Would count down on the calendar the last days of school each year.

One year, my father died during the countdown.  Never counted away my life again.  I think it is permissible to count down to seeing my grandkids, though.

Major lesson: This all cannot be taught — empirical evidence required.”

Yes.  But I do think we can all speed up our learning curves a bit.  Today is as good a day as any to start:  Enjoy the accomplishment of your workout (even if you don’t hit a new PR), relish the hug of a loved one (even if he made you angry yesterday), soak in the smell of your infant (even if it’s 2 am and she is screaming), be thankful for your paycheck (even if your boss drives you nuts), and enjoy running your fingers through your hair—it may be frizzy, but at least you have some.

There are no Accountability Police.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Last week, a friend of mine suggested that I write an article about accountability.  A mom of four children ranging in ages from five to twenty, she’d been pondering the topic as it related to parents being accountable to their children, no matter the developmental stage.  Days later, as I was doing community outreach with some teams in a competitive soccer club, accountability was on my mind.

Since graduating from college, I’ve coached a number of youth sports teams and have worked as a strength and conditioning specialist, which was my role earlier this week.  In training for team sports, athletes often have the opportunity to be competitive by measuring their workouts against others: sprints, skill work, endurance trials, you name it. One of things that has often puzzled me is how and why some kids complete the prescribed movements and number of repetitions and others “cheat” on the range of motion, number of reps, or both.  If you tell a group of 24 U10 soccer players to do 10 air squats, 10 burpees, 10 toe taps on the ball, and then dribble down and back twice, you would think you’d get from each of them 30 good reps and a dribble the full length and back, two times, every time.  But you’d often be wrong.  There are some kids who simply won’t do the full numbers—they are far too concerned about being first, or at least not being last.  They are less committed to doing the movements well, even when they are told that their improvement as a player lies in following the prescription.

A similar phenomenon can be witnessed in school.  A former classroom teacher and learning specialist, I’ve watched plenty of kids try to skimp on assignments, hoping to finish first in their class or avoid the dreaded last-place position.  No matter how many times they are told that the magic is in the process, the finish line looms large.

Developing accountability in team sports is a critical element of success: teammates must all pull their weight.  If eleven of fourteen players show up for pre-season camp in great shape and ready to roll, the three who haven’t done a thing to prepare have failed in their role as responsible team members.  If a coach brings low energy, a lack of preparedness, or a negative attitude, he has failed to be accountable in his role.  In youth sports, parents have responsibilities, too, and failing to provide support means a lack of accountability to the child and her team.

Accountability permeates our lives.  In each of our roles, we are accountable to someone, for something.  Whether you’re part of a management team at work, hold a leadership position in your religious community, are part of a book club, have children or are someone’s child, or are a member of a band, accountability is part of the gig.

How are you accountable to the people in your life?  Do you ever make choices for yourself that are different because of how they will affect those around you? Do you push yourself harder and persevere when the going gets tough, in part because you owe it to someone else?

Let’s say you’re training for an individual sport.   The accountability that is inherent in being on a team may not apply. However, when you’re struggling through a challenging session–straining to catch your breath at the track, gritting it out to stand up in a heavy squat, or working on your weak backhand in tennis–you might think of the people who’ve helped you get this far.  You may have coaches, fans, or family who have sacrificed something or supported you along the way.  They may not be present, and they will never know if you don’t give it your all, but you will know.  And if you continue to limit your efforts, eventually, they will know too.

Perhaps you’re not in training for anything; your fitness pursuits are health and wellness driven.  Choosing the harder road–going faster, pushing harder, completing the reps, refining the movement–sets you up for better outcomes and allows for increased accountability.  As I busted my butt doing a stair workout today—training for nothing other than life and overall fitness—I realized that my accountability to keep up the intensity related to the fact that I was away from my kids on a weekend morning. If I’m going to take the time to care for myself (and be a better mom for it), I’d better make it worthwhile.  Doing one less round on the stairs or letting my speed decrease with each round means I’m not holding up my end of the bargain—I’m not making the most of of my time away from my kids.

If you’re a teacher and you cut corners on lesson planning once or twice, your students might not notice.  Do that repeatedly, and they will.  If you’re a coach and you show up one morning tired and lacking conviction, your athlete may not be affected.   Do it regularly, and she will pay the price.  Doctors, lawyers, bankers, no matter; your clients need you to give your best effort.  Pet owner, spouse, grandson?  Yep, you get the idea; they all require accountability. Parenting? The top of the accountability food chain.

The tricky thing is that, more often than not, we can cheat the process. Most of the time, there are no accountability police; we must rely on our own internal cues. Even for those U10 soccer players training in a group, accountability is up to each individual. The other players are too busy counting their own reps and running their own race to take note of whether or not their teammates are playing it straight.  In the end, being accountable to ourselves is the best way to know for sure that we’re holding up our end of the bargain. We may need to act as our own surveillance camera: ever mindful, ever watchful.

 

 

How Badly do You Want It?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Maybe you want to be able to do five unassisted pull-ups in a row.  Or perhaps you would like to run a mile in under eight minutes for the first time in your life. Maybe you’ve been coveting a certain car ever since you graduated from college.  Maybe you’re hoping to lose a couple of inches from your belly, which has become significantly more challenging now that you’re in your forties and have two children.  Would you like to have a larger home, so each daughter can have her own room?   Maybe you’re in your thirties, wanting that dream job, or perhaps you’re in your twenties, yearning for that elusive graduate degree.  Perhaps you’re in your sixties, hoping to finally earn a lower handicap, after all of these years of golfing.

Sometimes, goal attainment is as simple as deciding you want something and going after it, with a clear plan of action and a reasonable amount of work.  More often than not, however, wanting something and making it happen is not a simple straight line from A to B.  With goals that require significant effort, time, focus, and other precious resources, the path from A to B is more of a long and winding road marked by detours, missteps, and plenty of frustration and self-doubt along the way.

Coming to terms with our desires and acknowledging that we really want something is never easy and often requires a dose of self-awareness.  But let’s assume you’re there: you know for sure what you want to accomplish. The question then becomes:  How badly do you want it?  Because, if you haven’t gotten it already, you’re likely going to have to work your tail off and make meaningful sacrifices along the way.

You will no doubt have good days and bad days, and you may have to push through many more of the latter in order to be rewarded with a paltry few of the former.  You’re going to come up with all sorts of creative reasons why you don’t really want the end product, after all.  It’s just not attainable, and you simply don’t have what it takes.  You really do love the things (foods, drinks, free time, etc.) you’d need to sacrifice, and life is just too short for that.  So, what’s the point? You’re also likely to run into some self-other comparisons that easily derail your focus. You may envy the acquaintance—the trust-fund baby who never had to work a day in his life and can buy whatever he wants.  If you’re shooting for pull-ups, you may covet the ease of the “natural athletes” at your gym who glide over the pull-up bar. Then there’s the friend whose parents are paying her graduate school tuition, and the neighbor who barely has to crack a book to sail through the program. You have neither parents to pay your way, nor enhanced intellectual prowess to succeed without putting in the time. It’s just too daunting!

So, how badly do you want it?  Are you willing to do what it takes to get what you want?  Are you willing to bust your butt at the gym (or at the track or on the golf course), day in and day out?  Are you willing to work long hours to prove yourself worthy of that coveted job?  Are you willing to opt out of relaxing vacations while you save your pennies so your girls can have their own rooms?  Are you willing to avoid cookies and milkshakes for as long as it takes to modify your midsection?  Can you handle the sore muscles, the late-night studying, the feeling of missing out socially? Are you willing to mix tears with sweat, always keeping the goal in mind?  Can you deal with the fact that there are no guarantees of success, despite your hard work?

No doubt about it: life isn’t fair.  We are not all dealt the same hand when we’re born.  We can’t have someone else’s body, or intelligence, or bank account. But we sure as hell can make use of what we’ve got and make alterations to what’s been given.

The question is: How badly do you want it?  Only you can decide!

**Related reading from the archives:  How Well do You Really Know Those Joneses, Anyway?**

Never Say Never (Toss out the Rules), and Happy Mother’s Day!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*Happy Mother’s Day to my amazing mother/editor/adviser/teacher/friend.  Thank you for setting and breaking your own rules in the manner you have!

These past few days, I’ve had reason to reflect on the massive role of parenting, as I have many times before. While having children allows one to understand more about parenting than one could prior to having children, being a parent does not allow us to understand or appreciate what it’s like for each individual parent in relation to each individual child. Despite having a background as a psychologist in the field of special education, for example, I can’t possibly appreciate what it’s like to parent a child with significant special needs.

We often have “rules” in our lives—codes of conduct we set for ourselves and aspire to follow as we make our way. Set with the best intentions, these rules may work for us in theory but may be difficult to put into practice as we encounter unanticipated challenges.  And while it’s easy to assume that our own rules would be optimal for everyone (judging others when they stray from our personal code), it’s best to refrain from this unproductive pastime. As I’ve written before, everyone has a story to tell; our rules simply might not apply to someone else’s history or set of current challenges.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I encourage you to reflect on your own hard and fast rules, either in relation to your role as a parent or in your life in general.  Remember that hard and fast rules are often unrealistic and unsustainable. In fact, our own set of rules will change with new obstacles and realities in the life of our own family. If we continue to say NEVER, even internally, we will set ourselves up for feelings of failure and defeat when we stray from our rigid rulebook. And, until you walk in someone’s shoes, it’s best not to assume that you know how you would behave if you did.

Being a mother is a profound undertaking and experience.  Despite the best intentions, things don’t always go as planned.  In celebration of mothers everywhere, toss out the rules and judgments and embrace the intentions—as they’re mostly good.  Moms (and dads) are usually doing the best they can, given the complexity of the human experience. In fact, most people are doing just that. Keep this in mind, too, when you’re judging your co-worker who chose to have plastic surgery, or your neighbor who doesn’t compost, or the obese man you see at the market buying cookies, or the guy at the Globo gym doing bicep curls in the mirror.

Listed below are examples of some common parenting rules in our modern, enlightened, organic world. Many of these were/are my own, either created before I had children or after I’d already become a parent.  Some of these are rules other parents in my life have established for themselves.  All of these have gone by the wayside at one time or another—many of them more often than not! I confess to having broken the majority of them many times over. Indeed, they are here, in large part, to make parents among you chuckle.

I’ll never curse in front of my kids.

I’ll never let my kids watch TV all day.

I’ll never feed my kids pizza for breakfast.

I’ll never make my daughters wear a dress when they don’t want to.

I’ll never bribe my kids with treats.

I’ll never let my kids go three days without brushing their long hair.

I’ll never let on that I’m frustrated when my kids don’t have a good game.

I’ll never let my kids see me change outfits because I don’t like the way my first choice looks.

I’ll never be the parent yelling a bit too much from the sidelines of a game.

I’ll never curse AT my kids.

I’ll never let my kids eat sugar for seven consecutive days.

I’ll never ask my kids to change their clothes because I am worried about how their outfit reflects on me. 

I’ll never forget to pick my kids up from school on early dismissal days.

I’ll never buy a toy for my kids just to keep them from melting down in public.

I’ll never drive my kids around to get them to fall asleep.

I’ll never forget to pack my kids’ lunch.

I’ll never bail out my kids when they forget a homework assignment and want me to bring it to school in the middle of the day.

I’ll never NOT bail out my kids when they forget a homework assignment and want me to bring it to school in the middle of the day.

I’ll never volunteer at school in order to get in good graces with my kids’ teacher.

I’ll never go a full year without contributing to a volunteer project in my kids’ classes.

I’ll never sign my kids’ reading logs when they didn’t actually read the full 20 required minutes. 

I’ll never let my kids have pasta and pizza and doughnuts on the same day.

I’ll never give my kids juice or Twinkies.

I’ll never let my kids see me drink too much.

I’ll never buy my kids a cell phone before age 13.

I’ll never let my daughters get their ears pierced before age 13.

I’ll never spend too much money on my kids’ birthday parties

I’ll never feed my baby formula before age one.

I’ll never spend too much on an outfit for my daughters for a party just because it’s trendy.

I’ll never raise my voice at my kids in public.

I’ll never pack my kids’ backpacks for them once they get to high school.

I’ll never completely rewrite a sentence in one of my kids’ essays. 

I’ll never let my kids go home with a parent I don’t know.

I’ll never leave my kids home alone before the legal age minimum.

I’ll never check my work emails or Facebook feed during a school concert.

I’ll never leave my kid in the car playing video games while I run into the store to get ice cream. 

I’ll never snap at my kids because I’m managing a frustrating situation at work.

I’ll never say anything but “I love to watch you play” after my kids’ sporting events. 

I’ll never say anything but “I love to watch you perform” after my kids dance, act, or sing. 

I’ll never let my kids watch Modern Family before they are old enough for the mature content.

I’ll never gossip with my kids and their friends.

I’ll never get so caught up in a moment that I miss something important my kids are trying to tell me.

Never say “Never,” and Happy Mother’s Day!

Related reading from the archives:

Who are we to Judge

There is Not One Right Way

 

 

 

We are NOT Superheroes. Saddle Up and Prioritize!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Originally posted in August, 2013, this is one of my favorite articles and holds an important message. It’s filled with in-depth research and analysis that should make you reassess your conviction that you CAN do it all, if you’re inclined to think that way.  Perhaps the bottom line is that the truly most disciplined of us all are the ones who can choose priorities most wisely and allow other pursuits to take a back seat. This can be far easier said than done!

You know how memories are clouded by photographs?  Sometimes what we think are memories from the reality of our past are actually mental constructions based on photographs and stories.  Likewise, sometimes our memories are psychological constructions based on defense mechanisms or other aspects of our psyches.  Here’s an example:  When my brother (older than me by two years), came with my father to pick me up from college after my freshman year, he took one long, hard look at me and said, “What the hell happened to your face?”  You see, like so many college freshman, I had packed on a few pounds over the course of the year.  But the thing is, I’m pretty sure this story isn’t true and my brother never uttered those words.  Instead, I think that was my own projection; I was so afraid that people at home would notice the change in my appearance that at some point I put all of that fear (and loathing) into my brother and made him the bad guy.

This post is actually not about memories or psychological effects on accurate reporting.  This post is actually about will power, self-control, and the personal resources we possess to attack our goals and stick with our intentions.  So why the story about my weight gain in college?  It seems to me that the phenomenon of the Freshman Fifteen—the tendency of first-year college co-eds to gain an average of fifteen pounds—is quite understandable when we know a little more about will power and about the effects of difficult emotional demands on our capacity to make sensible choices.  Assuming that most first-year co-eds don’t actually set out to gain weight and would prefer not to, there is likely some mechanism that makes this such a common outcome.  I’m not interested in the easy answers here:  beer drinking, binge eating, less exercise.  I’m interested in the role of ego depletion—how our self-control resources become limited and impact our ability to make good choices.  You see, will power–the ability to exert self-control,–is a finite resource.  When it has been depleted on any given day, subsequent functioning can be compromised.

Nowhere is will power more obviously implicated than in the realm of dieting.  The thing about dieting that we’ve heard a million times over but seem to ignore, out of desperation to fit into a dress for our best friend’s wedding or look better at the beach on vacation in Cabo, is that there is something inherently defeating about the simple act of “being on a diet.”  Once we proclaim—whether in our own head or publicly—that we are on a diet, our psyches register deprivation.   When we force ourselves to be deprived of something we want, we are engaged in a mental conflict that costs us energy, not unlike when we argue with a friend or family member.  There is a psychic toll when we are forced to grapple with conflicts within ourselves or with conflicting goals.  We both want to lose weight and to have cookies. We both want to be more muscular and to lie on the couch eating bon bons.  We both want to win the race and to socialize the night before.  With each run-in, we must choose an outcome, and the cost of doing so matters.

During the 1990s, there was a boon of interest in the field of social psychology in self-regulation and self-control as human resources.  A pioneer in the field was Roy Baumeister.  In 1998, he and his colleagues published a seminal paper discussing the finite nature of self-control and the concept of ego-depletion.  According to the authors, “The core idea behind ego depletion is that the self’s acts of volition draw on some limited resource, akin to strength or energy, and that therefore, one act of volition will have a detrimental impact on subsequent volition. (p. 1252).” Their article told of four clever experiments, each of which demonstrated that we possess a finite amount of self-control capacity or energy.  With each episode of depletion of that resource, we are left to face subsequent situations with a less robust level of self-control.  Baumeister et al’s (1998) first experiment involved subjects who were left in a room with plates of radishes, on the one hand, and plates of chocolate cookies and candies on the other.  Some subjects were told to eat a certain number of radishes but refrain from the chocolates, while others were told to eat the chocolates.  Both groups were then asked to complete a geometric problem-solving task that was secretly unsolvable and to alert the staff when they were done or when they wished to stop trying.  It turned out that the chocolate group persisted more than twice as long in their problem-solving efforts than the radish group.  The authors concluded that something about the initial deprivation from eating chocolate had depleted subjects’ self-control and persistence resources, so that they were less able to work through the challenging geometric task.

Baumeister et al (1998) conducted three additional experiments, the results of which suggested that different kinds of challenges to our self-control resources lead to lower levels of persistence in subsequent tasks.  In a similar vein, other studies have demonstrated that suppressing our emotions or engaging in challenging group interactions can negatively impact performance on subsequent, unrelated challenging tasks, in both the cognitive and motor domains (Muraven et al., 1998; Richeson & Shelton, 2003).  It turns out that will power is a finite resource.  Try as we might, we may just come up short in our efforts to repeatedly exert such power.  And, beyond will power, emotionally draining and cognitively challenging endeavors also impact subsequent self-regulation and other aspects of our performance.

This ego-depletion model has been studied rigorously since the 1990s.  According to Jamie Holmes (2011), more than 100 experiments have supported Baumeister et al’s (1998) results, indicating that we do, indeed, have a limited supply of will power or self-control, and as it is taxed, we are less likely to exert it subsequently.  Inzlicht and Gutsell (2007) demonstrated that suppressing emotions made subjects less adept at detecting their own errors on subsequent tasks.  This is fascinating stuff.  Emotional restraint actually inhibits our brain’s ability to detect errors in our actions and inconsistencies between our behaviors and our goals.  Seriously?  This gives a whole new meaning to the term “emotional eating,” doesn’t it?  Maybe we need to add “emotional laziness” or “emotional ineptitude” to our cultural lexicon!

Holmes (2011) applied the ego-depletion theory to the epidemic of poverty around the world.  The point here is that poor people are forced to exert self-control regarding finances so often that they are then left in a state of depletion for all other challenges in life.  With each financially-driven decision, they are forced to choose between competing goals or desires, a state of affairs that depletes their ego resources in ways people with money can escape.  This might help people with relative financial wealth understand something more about how challenging it is to be poor.  Maybe, I’m now thinking, there’s a legitimate analogy to those who are chronically obese; getting out of that category is exponentially harder than it is for an average-weight person to drop a few pounds, since the opportunities requiring abstinence in obese people might not even hit the radar of those who are average in weight.

For you athletes in the audience:  A number of researchers have sought to apply the ego-depletion model of will power and self-regulation to athletic performance and exercise adherence.  For example, Bray, Ginnis, Hicks, and Woodgate (2008) found that subjects who completed a taxing cognitive task exhibited significantly higher electromyographic activity during a subsequent physical (hand-grip) task, compared to controls who were not cognitively depleted prior to grip testing.  These results show that people who are ego-depleted must recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same amount of work as those who are not.  Likewise, Bray, Graham, Ginis, and Hicks (2011) showed that cognitive exertion led to a linear decrease in maximal voluntary muscular force production (also a hand-grip task), indicating that cognitive depletion affects muscular endurance.  Dorris et al (2012) performed two experiments demonstrating that completion of challenging cognitive tasks prior to exercise diminished performance for competitive athletes.  In their studies, competitive hockey players and competitive rugby players performed fewer reps of target exercises after completing difficult cognitive tasks than they did after working on simple, non-taxing cognitive tasks.  Seriously?  Maybe the whole “dumb jock” thing isn’t such a bad idea.

Hagger et al (2010) also discuss the physical/physiological implications of the ego-depletion model.  They reviewed countless studies showing that when self-control resources get depleted, there are negative effects on subsequent physical performance and lower levels of adherence to exercise programs.  The authors thus advise that people should “initiate exercise programs at times when they have few demands on their self-regulatory resources (p. 79).”  In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to expect long-term success from committing to a new workout regimen during finals of law school.   No wonder it can be so hard to get to the gym after a long day at school or a long day of decision-making and problem-solving at work.

The above review is a mere glimpse into the significant research on this fascinating topic, and you can dig deeper on your own if you’re so inclined.  Just be sure you don’t have plans for a super-intense workout afterwards, as you’ll probably be a bit taxed.  My goal here is to raise our collective awareness to the reality that various types of ego depletion affect not only our will power with regards to diet and exercise choices, but also our actual physical capacity to perform.

The reason I started along on this topic in the first place is because a long-time TJ’s Gym member named Rip emailed me asking for my take on the idea of finite will power and its impact on our ability to perform at the gym.  Rip was also interested in how cognitive and emotional depletion can impact workouts, and how pushing hard through intense workouts can impact our functioning throughout the rest of our days.  Thanks to Rip, I ended up knee-deep in the literature outlined above, depleting my self-regulatory and cognitive resources, and negatively impacting the quality of my workouts ever since.  That’s right, Rip.  I blame you for my crappy week of training and the extra treats in which I indulged while writing this article.

In all seriousness, Rip’s questions got me thinking about all sorts of applications of ego depletion.  Through all of my years of schooling (and there were plenty), I’ve always found it amusing that some kind of comfort treat accompanied me and my computer and my textbooks, as though hot tea and cookies or a bowl of cherries could fuel my mind.  I’d always sensed that this was some kind of self-reward process meant to soften the blow of all of that mental will power and tenacity.  Turns out, I was kind of on to something; proactively providing a food reward somehow fended off the depletion of self-control and will power that might have happened, had I deprived myself of the treats that crossed my mind.  In other words, I was finding a way to make sure that my will power and self-control energy was directed towards studying and not deprivation of yummy things.  Of course, all behaviors are multi-determined and there were surely other reasons I would eat when I studied, but I’m quite sure this is part of the picture.  I know I’m not alone—remember those days of college finals when you’d eat extra helpings of ice cream and bring candy bars to the library?

A similar phenomenon happened for me in my twenties when I was running marathons.  Having no coaching or sensible training plan, I would pound the pavement day in and day out, often sixteen miles at a time.  Much as I loved running, this kind of repetitive pounding often wasn’t all that much fun and required quite a bit of mental fortitude for me to carry on.  Guess when in my life I ate more junk food than at any other time? During the times leading up to the marathons I ran.  With this new understanding of will power and ego depletion, I feel sure that I was trying to provide some kind of prophylactic buffer against the mental challenge of will power it took to persevere during some of those training runs.  But this state of affairs also begs one of Rip’s questions: How does physical training and intense exercise impact our will power in other areas?  Perhaps the relationship goes both ways.   This would mean that fatigue from physical work might negatively impact our subsequent self-restraint and cognitive and emotional functioning.  Indeed, we know from the research above that if we force ourselves to persevere through a difficult workout–assuming that exercising rigorously is consistent with our long-term goals of health, wellness, and aesthetics–we are utilizing resources that will then be depleted as we go about our lives outside the gym or off the playing field.  We know that the mental part taxes us; perhaps the physical aspect does, too.  That can be a subject for a future article; there’s plenty here already to take in.

So what can we athletes and others take away from all of this?  For those of you whose training is rigorous and whose workout routines are intense (e.g., CrossFit athletes), it might be a good idea to check in with yourselves as to the realities of the benefits of that peak level of intensity.  If we think that constantly pushing our limits at the gym is wise and likely to set us up for greatness in the rest of our lives, we might want to think again.   I have written about the post-exercise high and how we can harness it to attack goals in our lives.  I absolutely believe that the fitter we are, the more likely we will be to tackle with grace and success the challenges we face.  However, while we bask in the glory of the post-workout high, let us be mindful of our limited psychological and cognitive resources and recognize that there might be a psychic cost involved with the mental fortitude and discipline inherent in intense training, day in and day out.   If you are doing a CrossFit AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workout during a particularly stressful time at work, those extra ten reps might cost you in the form of an hour of lost productivity at the office.  Or those thirty seconds you took off your 5k run time just after a fight with your girlfriend might translate into a glazed doughnut and glass of wine later in the day.  Remember, your stores of will power and mental fortitude are finite.  Emotional stress affects those stores.  Making tough choices and sticking with goals affects those stores.  Make sure you are spending your self-regulation chits wisely, and don’t get too greedy with them.  Short-term, you might be able to do it all, but long-term your stores are likely to get depleted.  (see “Money Zone” article for more on the importance of saving your best self for your highest priorities.).   This all sheds light on the phenomenon of burnout for athletes who train hard for long periods of time.  Paying attention to our bodies is not enough—we need to pay attention to our minds, as well!

That’s right.  There’s always that looming underbelly—your psyche will find a way to catch up with you if there is bubbling content to be dealt with.  It will wreak havoc on your stores of will power and deplete your ego faster than refusing a bowl of your favorite ice cream ever could.  Which brings us back, full circle, to those Freshman Fifteen.  Given the emotional demands on new college students who are forced to regulate themselves outside of the watchful eye of parents for the first time in their lives, it is certainly understandable that deprivation from food and drinks might go by the wayside.  As we have learned, there is only so much fuel in that tank of will power, and with every act of self-control we must exert, that tank is depleted.  Having additional psychological challenges on top of the usual only makes the task that much more difficult for college freshman and for the rest of us.  It behooves us all to be aware of these phenomena and do what we can do monitor ourselves appropriately.

REFERENCES:

Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D.M.  (1998).  Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

Bray, S.R., Ginis, K.A.M., Hicks, A.L., and Woodgate, J. (2008).  Effects of self-regulatory strength depletion on muscular performance and EMG activation. Psychophysiology, 45, 337-343.

Bray, S.R., Graham, J.D., Ginis, K.A.M, and Hicks, A.L. (2011).  Cognitive task performance causes impaired maximum force production in human hand flexor muscles.  Biological Psychology, 6740.

Dorris, D.C., Power, D.A., Kenefick, E. (2012).  Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletes.  Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(2).

Hagger, M.S., Wood, C.W., Stiff, C., and Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. (2010).  Self-regulation and self-control in exercise: the strength-energy model. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(1), 62-86.

Holmes, J. (2011).  Why can’t poor people escape poverty?  New Republic Online Magazine.

Inzlicht, M. and Gotsell, J.N. (2007).  Running on empty: Neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science, 18(11), 933-937.

Muraven, M., Tice, D.M., & Baumeister, R.F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.

Richeson, J.A., Baird, A.A., Gordon, H.L., Heatherton, T.F., Wyland, C.L., Trawalter, S., & Shelton, J.N. (2003). An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 1323–1328.

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