Assertiveness Training: The Importance of Standing up for Yourself

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By Dr. Allison Belger

When my husband, TJ, and I arrived at the hospital for the birth of our second child, we hadn’t yet decided on a middle name if we were to have a girl.  TJ is all about turning such scenarios into games, so he suggested that if we had a girl, her middle name would be the name of the first female nurse to come into our room.  We agreed to go for it.  In walked a very friendly nurse whose name was Vietnamese and difficult for us to pronounce.  We chose “Brooke.”

I tell this story as an intro to this week’s post.  Through the holidays, my goal was to spend as much time with our girls as possible, and frankly, I had little motivation to write and struggled to develop article ideas.  Last night I committed to myself that I’d ask my 11-year-old daughter for an idea, and no matter what it was (even if Vietnamese and difficult to pronounce), I’d give it a whirl.  She did not disappoint. Her idea:  “Why don’t you write about the importance of sticking up for yourself?” She went on to describe that in Little Women, which she’d just finished reading, the character Meg has difficulty standing up to people and needed to work on that.  Done.  I’d committed to her idea, so here goes.

The ability to be assertive and stand up for our own needs and desires is handled differently by each of us.   Culturally, especially in years past, boys have had an easier time with this than girls; apparently, the message for young girls was to be quiet and respectful, and not cause a stir.  Clearly that message has changed, but nonetheless girls and women may still  have a harder time with assertiveness; they are less likely to confront and want to be liked.

Male or female, standing up for yourself can take many forms, from being able to hold your place in line at the grocery store when someone tries to work his way in, to being able to tell your mother that you don’t like it when she tells you what to wear.  It might mean telling your soccer coach that you feel stronger as a defender than as a striker, or telling your son’s teacher that you are concerned and anxious about his learning disability and would appreciate weekly check-ins.  It could mean telling the trainer who is preparing you for your next CrossFit competition that you’re not sure her programming is working for you and your need to be home with your kids at critical hours.

For those who struggle with this kind of assertiveness, the challenge may be rooted in both your personality (nature) and your earliest interactions with caregivers (nurture).  Perhaps you had a domineering parent who overreacted whenever you expressed your needs. Perhaps you have an extra dose of innate anxiety, or maybe you grew up with a sibling whose needs were more apparent and always seemed to take center stage.  While you may have to work harder to combat natural forces and environmental shaping, the results are worth the effort.

Even if you are someone who is generally able to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want, you may struggle at certain times and in certain situations—e.g. facing an intimidating boss, in social settings where stakes are high, or at times when you feel insecure and self-conscious.  Below are some pointers that will help you develop your own assertiveness quotient:

*Role play.  Hokey as it sounds, going through the motions with a trusted friend or family member is often a great way to develop the guts to stand up for yourself in especially tricky situations.  Have your partner respond in various ways to ensure you are feeling ready for whatever response you might get in the real-deal scenario.  Practicing will ease your anxiety when it matters most.

*Conjure your deepest darkest fears and worst-case scenarios with a specific issue or individual in mind.  Write them down and then write down the worst thing that could possibly happen in each case. It is likely that your amorphous, nonspecific fears are far more threatening than any real-life versions of what might actually happen

*Practice being more assertive and asking for what you need with those closest to you, with whom you feel safest.  This should work like training wheels to get you ready for interactions with others out in the world.

*If you have children, imagine what strategies you would like them to develop as they grow and encounter peer pressure and other life challenges. This might help you view assertiveness skills with a greater appreciation for their impact on your own life and inevitable stressful situations.

How might these exercises play out?  Next time you’re at the gym, be sure to speak up if you need a modification for a movement or would like some special help from a coach.  When you’re at work and have a question or suggestion for your boss, make the time to approach and discuss.  When you’re on the phone with your sister and need her to listen to your story (for once!), find the words to get her attention.

The bottom line is that the ability to ask for what you need is a critical life skill.  When done within reason and with awareness of others, expressing yourself and making realistic demands will allow you to navigate life with less frustration and resentment.  Of course, it is possible to take this too far with negative, self-absorbed results, but that’s a topic for another article.

This week’s focus is on the importance and benefits of being able to “stick up for yourself,” of recognizing your own needs and presenting them firmly in ways that allow others to respond and comply, with appreciation for your point of view.  The world may not accommodate every request, but it sure as heck won’t if you don’t try. Martyrdom is never a great tactic long-term, so recognize your needs, embrace the process, and assert yourself!

Related reading from the archives:  Peer Pressure and Homework:  It’s Not Just for Kids!

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From the Archives with an Update: Good Days Follow Bad Ones

Below is an article I published back on March 25th.  The accompanying photograph is of my younger daughter last Fall when she was 8 and pensive on the sidelines of a soccer game.  Like all of us, she has good days and bad days on the playing field.  She now plays U9 competitive soccer and generally has a blast.  She has taken to juggling, and today reached a milestone, breaking the 100 mark, which is quite a feat for a player her age.  The rules are: no body parts other than feet allowed (thighs make juggling quite a bit easier).    Just yesterday, she had some “moments” of frustration, complaining that she wasn’t getting any better and wondering why she couldn’t get more than she had the day before.  Within four minutes of being out on the field today, it became a “good day,” as you can see in the video below.

We all have our ups and downs.  Deep breaths, perspective, and patience will guide us best, whether on the soccer field or in life.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve always marveled at Olympic athletes. Beyond the amazing talent, drive, discipline, and dedication that impress us all, what has always had me most mystified is the fact that many of them train for their entire lives and have only seconds to execute their craft.  The Olympic record for the women’s 50-meter freestyle swim? 24.05 seconds.  The amount of time it takes for a vault in gymnastics?  In the neighborhood of six seconds.  Sure, marathons take a relative while, but still it comes down to a single performance on a single day after literally hundreds or thousands of days spent preparing.  I’ve always wondered how these athletes deal with chance in this setup–the chance they get sick, the chance they get hurt, the chance they could simply have a bad day when it matters most.

One might argue that the best athletes and performers are defined by simply not having bad days.  Or maybe it’s not that they don’t have bad days; rather it’s their capacity to manage themselves despite having a bad day, their ability to dig down and perform when their bodies aren’t quite right, that makes them special.  But I think this is old news.

My focus here is not on what elite athletes–whose lives have been devoted to training and performance when it matters–do to rise above a bad day, but what the rest of us do–not so much during a bad day, but in its aftermath.  I’m interested here in how we handle the disappointments of a competition, a workout, a race, an event when things don’t go our way.  How do we process our failures?  Where do our thoughts go, why do they go there, and how does this affect our functioning in the future?

The CrossFit Open is a forum ripe with people experiencing all sorts of highs and lows, based on performances week to week and year to year.  My thoughts for this article were spurred on by a post on our TJ’s Gym discussion board by a long-time member whose performance on workout 13.3 was far worse than his performance on the same workout a year ago, despite consistent effort and training in the interim.  He was understandably frustrated, and I dare say he will obsess about this for at least a few days.

His post, combined with many conversations I’ve had with other people, got me thinking about why it is so difficult for us to acknowledge when a less-than-optimal performance can be chalked up not to poor preparation, or mediocre effort, or declining prowess, but to the simple fact that we have bad days.  Sometimes things just don’t go the way we have planned.  Sometimes our systems aren’t fired up on days when a competition or game is scheduled.  Sometimes our hormones are out of whack, our spouses are upset with us, our kids are sick.  Sometimes we just don’t have that spark, and try as we might, we can’t light the fires.  What’s worse is that we may not even realize when our bodies are having a bad day, if our minds are having a good one.  We may feel mentally excited, prepared, rearing and ready to go, while our bodies hold the secret of another fate.  This disconnect can be especially frustrating, because the lackluster performance comes as an unpleasant surprise and unexpected disappointment.

So what do we do when the stars don’t align, and our bodies, our brains, and our psyches don’t cooperate to allow us to put our best foot forward?  We don’t get a hall pass.  The competition for which we’ve registered doesn’t get postponed, just because we don’t feel particularly jazzy.  The 10k race we finally had the guts to enter will go on as planned, despite our malaise.

Are we able to give it our best for the day and move on?  Can we accept a bad day and recognize that it’s part of being human?  Can we let go of the “what if’s” and focus on the “what next’s?”  Or do we obsess for days, unable to let things go, torturing ourselves because we didn’t perform how we wanted?  Most importantly, do we generalize from the experience and let it suddenly and irrationally define who we are as an athlete?  Do we convince ourselves that we simply are no longer up to snuff and must be losing ground in our sport, or can we find the perspective that, plainly and simply, we’ve had a bad day?

I realize that blaming all failures or sub-optimal performances on a bad day is unproductive and unlikely to lead to growth.  It is absolutely important for us to learn from errors and evaluate our preparation and training, in order to make changes and engender progress.  But, on the flip side, if we torture ourselves every time we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped, development is also unlikely to unfold.  Take the guy from our gym who, at least momentarily, interpreted his performance as an indication that he is less fit and skilled than he was a year ago, despite his training efforts.  If he were to allow himself to get stuck there, he might become less and less likely to train hard.  Why?  Because what’s the point of training hard when the results are crap?  What’s the point of going to the gym week after week, when it’s apparent that fitness and competencies have declined?  We can see how becoming too invested in the big meaning of a single failure is a slippery slope to throwing in the proverbial towel.  On the other hand, accepting the reality of bad days would allow this athlete to let it go, have faith in his training, reclaim rational thinking and acknowledge that he is fitter, more skilled, and more energetic than he was a year ago when he probably tested his fitness on a “good” day.

A forum like the CrossFit Open is unique and intriguing on a number of levels.  One of its most captivating features is that elite, increasingly professional athletes do the same workouts as regular, everyday CrossFitters.  But let’s not forget that part of the “job” of an elite athlete is to overcome and perform, regardless of internal and external circumstances, while part of the “job” of the other thousands of participants is to fit the Open workouts into everyday life, with all of its demands and curveballs, and to be able to leave it behind and continue with the business of the rest of life, generally unfettered by the “what if’s” of a single workout on a single bad day.  Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that competition is trivial, and we should just let it go, not a care in the world about our results.  Rather, the point is to acknowledge the reality of its import and significance and not let a single instance carry too much weight or define too much about who you are and how you see yourself as an athlete, much less as a person.  If your life is not bigger than a single performance, a single workout, well then, we’ve got a larger set of problems to address in another post.

Invest yourself in your training and your goals, for sure, but don’t over-indulge in the process.  Bad days happen, but so do good ones.  You may even have an awesome day (or ten) if you don’t get bogged down in the bad ones.

How Well do you Really Know Those Joneses, Anyway?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City.  During the ’80s when I was in middle school and high school, many of my friends’ fathers worked on Wall Street.  The financial industry was booming, and some of the wealthiest financiers lived in my home town.  My father, a hardworking physician, used to joke when he’d pull into our driveway after picking me up from one of my friend’s mansions, that he thought he was doing well until he saw their house and cars.  On the flip side, when we would host soccer players from out of town, competing in local tournaments, they would always “ooh” and “ahh” over our home—how big it was and how fancy.  It’s all relative.

We’ve all heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses,” which captures what happens when people attempt to acquire material goods and social standing commensurate with that of their successful neighbors.  You can read about the history of this idiom and potential meanings of it here.

Despite clear warnings against trying to keep up with our neighbors, at certain times in our lives we may succumb to social comparisons and envious feelings, and we may alter our own efforts accordingly.  Keeping up can become a full-time job.   We may covet the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the trips they take.  We can yearn for their beautiful homes and lucrative jobs.  We often admire/desire their striking good looks, their natural athleticism, or their family cohesiveness.  We may dream of having their well-mannered, talented children along with their easy popularity and exciting social life.  Indeed, we come to believe that what we see of the Joneses is all there is to see, that their lives are truly so much better than ours.

The thing is, how well do we really know those Joneses?  How much do we know about what goes on behind their closed doors, how they parent their children, or what they say to each other when they’re angry?  How much do we know about what Mrs. Jones looks like when she rolls out of bed, how Mr. Jones treats the people who work for him (and what they really think of him), how Junior Jones behaves at school, or how Miss Teenage Jones feels about herself when she lies in bed at night?  Can we ever get beneath that surface, even if we consider them friends?

The Joneses I’m talking about don’t even have to come in that traditional form—a financially successful family with good looks to boot.   For you, the Joneses might present as the very fit woman at the gym who can do things with a barbell you’d like to be able to do, or the student who gets better grades in your college humanities class.   It might be the trim, tan executive who rides on your bus every morning, effortlessly flirting with beautiful women.  Or maybe it’s the 60-something woman who walks her dog each morning with a kick in her step, more energetic than your own, at age 47.   You see, the Joneses are tricky and chameleon-like in their capacity to show up in different forms at different times in our lives.

In the case of the beautiful Mrs. Jones: as you critically observe the wrinkles on your own face, are you aware that she has struggled with adult acne for years and takes all sorts of potions from Birth Order Plus to achieve the skin you see?  Did you know that the guy with the job you desire suffers from self-doubt and bouts of depression? Were you aware that Little Boy Jones has tantrums in school and throws things when he’s at home being a kid, more often, even, than your own spirited child?

While we’ve all heard the warnings about trying to keep up, we often sustain feelings of envy, which are misguided and self-defeating.  We say it at our gyms all the time:  Don’t compare yourself too readily or too often with other athletes.  If you want pull-ups like that woman in red (call her a Jones if you like), you should certainly work for it, but there are some things you might not know: Woman-in-red has struggled for years to achieve what seems so effortless to you, and she would love to have your strong legs!  The goal is to compete with yourself–to become the fittest, healthiest, and happiest possible version of you–and to avoid being drawn into physical and social comparisons.

Sure, there are some Joneses who have been dealt a fabulous deck of cards and truly do live a relatively blessed existence.  Some people are more fortunate than others—no doubt about it.  Still, remember that behind closed doors they too have feelings and doubts that they keep to themselves, much as you do.  The answer may be to choose positive role models and mentors—with strengths to be admired and human weaknesses too.  Understanding the achievements of others and how they arrived at their success can be productive and powerful, providing motivation to propel you in directions you’d like to go.

Keep in mind that there’s a slippery slope from inspiration to a self-defeating frenzy based on unrealistic, idealized notions of the lives of others.  The best route is to strive for what is meaningful for YOU, not because you imagine it will transform you into a version of somebody else.  You might not actually want the behind-the-scenes reality that comes along with the perfection you perceive on the outside.  And if you still long for those external trappings but are unwilling to make the kind of sacrifices it would take to get there, that’s okay too.  It’s your life, and your name isn’t Jones.

You’re not in Kansas Anymore: Acknowledge Your Past, but Make Sure Your Future is Your Own.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Last week, I received a call from my 11-year-old daughter at school, asking me to bring the P.E. clothes she’d left behind.  P.E. class was to start in fifteen minutes, and she’d receive some kind of demerit if she didn’t have her uniform.  I didn’t have much time to weigh the pros and cons of delivering her clothes; despite some reservations, I grabbed them, raced over to school, and dropped them in the office for her, all the while wondering if this was the parenting decision I should be making.

Being available as a parent is critical for the emotional wellbeing of our children.  Stepping up to rescue them from problematic or dangerous situations is an absolute must when they are young.  However, there comes a time when saving our kids from each and every small disaster teaches them only one thing: that they should forever rely on us and that there is no need to develop strategies of their own for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.   Maybe next time, I’ve told myself, I’ll tell my daughter a version of “tough luck” (lovingly, of course), and she’ll have to deal with the consequences of a lower P.E. grade.  Maybe then she will figure out a better way to remember to bring her uniform to school.

At some point in our growth and development, we need to become more independent and self-reliant.   We need to take hold of our obligations and figure out ways of following through.  We need to find ways to remember to pack the things we need for our day, to do the things we need to do for school or work, and to say the things we need to say to our friends and family in order to sustain relationships.  We can’t always rely on our parents’ cues, such as “What do you say to Sally and her mom for having you over for dinner?”  At some point, we need to internalize that parental function and regulate our lives for ourselves. This is a complicated undertaking—perhaps as much for parents in letting go as for children in accepting responsibility and accountability.

We are all given a genetic blueprint at birth, as well as an environment in which we are raised.  These two factors comprise the nature/nurture one-two punch that makes us each who we are.  Just as our DNA plays a significant role in who we become, our relationships with our primary caregivers dictate much about who we are as adults.  For some of us, loosening the reigns of childhood experience is a relatively easy task—these are cases in which parenting was “good enough” and psychological insults were minimal.  We may trip up from time to time, but we are generally able to function in the world in ways that allow us to move forward.  On the other end of the spectrum are childhoods where environmental challenges were significant, where basic needs were not met, where psychological stressors dominated, and the trajectory of life was bleak from the start.  Somewhere in between lie most of us: with a background of basic love and support, with normal challenges to overcome, we are doing our best as adults to propel our lives in positive ways as we move forward.

My message this week is to encourage thinking about how to accept the reality of our history while writing our own current and future story.  As I’ve written before, we all have a story to tell.  If we allow our story to be a simple replication of our past, we are relinquishing authorship rights and allowing someone else’s story (our parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.) to become our own.  Forever.  For example, if we hold ourselves back in relationships because our father was stoic and cold, he is forever the author and we are forever the character, victim, and perpetrator.  If we mistreat our children because we were mistreated as children, we are giving more power to the original perpetrators and doing damage to innocent victims.  We must break the cycle, take ownership of the problem, and work to fix it.  In the world of sport, as in life, we can also be tracked and defined by our past. Ever have a soccer coach tell you you’ll never be a starter, based on your performance in a previous season?  Ever work your tail off to prove him wrong and eventually earn that spot?

While we can understand behavior in light of past experience, at some point our lives need to become our own.  If you’re living your life the way someone else wrote it and you’re unhappy, perhaps it’s time to seek help to figure out some meaningful strategies moving forward.  Just as you might call a coach to help with training for your sport, or you might seek a class to learn a foreign language, the time may be right to consult a therapist to explore negative behavior patterns that you’ve always blamed on your mother.  She doesn’t drive your bus any more: take the wheel and forge ahead.

There’s a fine line between acknowledging our past and allowing it to dictate the present and future.  Just as the barbell won’t get any lighter after your margarita splurge last night; or the hills on your trail run won’t flatten out in response to your limited sleep; the people in your life won’t forever excuse your bad behavior, difficult personality, or poor decision making because of your dysfunctional childhood. Buckle up.  Writing your own story takes time and is hard work but is well worth the effort.  You’re a grown-up now—and you need to remember to bring your gym clothes, too.

WOMEN, BODY IMAGE, and the MEDIA: A NEW EMPHASIS

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Since staring this blog a few months ago, I’ve solicited article ideas from readers, friends, and fellow athletes a number of times.  Without fail, each request has led to a suggestion for an article addressing women’s body image.  Thus far, I’ve avoided the subject for a number of reasons, in large part because of the widespread attention the topic has already received across various media; what could I offer in a field that has been saturated for years?  In addition, I didn’t want to contribute further to the female obsession with body and food.

In the past few weeks, a number of articles have been published exploring the portrayal of women’s bodies in the media and the extent to which CrossFit has done things differently.  Productive discussions have followed, with many of my readers asking for my perspective on this huge and complex issue.  As a 44-year-old woman, a psychologist, a mother of two young daughters, a former collegiate athlete, and an owner of CrossFit gyms, I have quite a bit to say, so here goes…

A woman’s relationship to her body dates back to primitive psychological times.  Our earliest attachment is to our mothers, first and foremost, and to other caregivers secondarily, through an intimate exchange of nourishment and sustenance that involves feeding from a mother’s breast or from a bottle substitute.  These early interactions are rich with psychological interplay–involving food and bodies–and become the foundation of the complicated mother-daughter relationship.   While this charged dynamic is not the focus of my work here, it certainly deserves mention.  Whatever our body image and our own responses to media portrayals of women, they are rooted in our earliest and most profound interactions with our mother, as well as our relationship with her as we grow.  And of course, a mother’s own psychology and sense of her own body are both consciously and unconsciously infused into her relationship with her daughter.  Author Kim Chernin’s excellent book, The Hungry Self, is rich and evocative in dealing with these issues and well worth the read for any woman with a body and psyche.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s when I was coming of age and growing into my own body, the look of the moment was that of the skinny Supermodel.  We were inundated with images of perfection that included smooth, tan skin; limbs that went on forever; hair that was thick and straight; and eyes that were catlike and sultry, if not blue as the ocean.  These were also the days before we were aware of the secrets of airbrushing and editing.  I can remember looking through magazines during my high school and college years, wondering how I stacked up to the images therein.  Even as a student athlete at an Ivy League college, I invested too much energy in trying to discern how or if I might ever embody this media-driven portrait of the perfect woman.

Fast forward to the present day.   While some things have changed, some have stayed the same.  I’ve been asked recently whether I think CrossFit has changed the landscape of what is considered beautiful and appealing with regard to women’s bodies.   In many ways, I think it has.  For those immersed in the CrossFit culture, there is a clear celebration of what women’s bodies can accomplish physically, which does, in theory, trump how women’s bodies appear.  In other words, the focus is on what we can DO, not how we LOOK.  However, if we think that the mantra of “Strong is the new Skinny” or the celebration of women lifting heavy weights means that the CrossFit culture–or other sport scenes such as professional women’s soccer or volleyball–has avoided objectification of women or has managed to glorify all body types, we are fooling ourselves.  I do not think for a minute that the images that are displayed in the media by CrossFit or others are any less threatening to us as women than the ones filled with super skinny, tan models holding Gucci bags.  Is there a broader representation of what is attractive and acceptable, with women who have bigger muscles and who don’t appear to be hungry or suffering from some massive eating disorder?  Absolutely.  But are those images any less likely to cause a woman out there in the world to loathe her own imperfections or yearn for a different casing for her insides than those images from Elle Magazine back in the day?  I think not.

What remains constant is that the bodies we see, flaunted across all media, possess popular standards of some kind of objective beauty.  They may be bigger and more muscular, but they are no less perfect—symmetrical, smooth, angular, tan–and without fat.  Likewise, the faces attached to the bodies tend to be attractive and beautiful in conventional ways.  In other words, we may be looking at stronger women, but their aesthetics may still be as tantalizing as those of the skeletal and perfected supermodels with cheekbones to (almost literally) die for.   If I’m a woman with extra fat in her midsection, or with triceps that move with the kettle bell I swing, or with genetically determined cellulite covering my otherwise toned hamstrings, or with skin that burns instead of tans, I might easily wonder why my likeness isn’t represented in the media.  I might, in fact, be moved to self-doubt and distress upon seeing the images of good-looking women with perfectly chiseled muscles on page after page of my favorite fitness magazine.

So is this article meant as yet another indictment of the media, of our collective capacity to fall prey to advertisers, and of our longstanding cultural acceptance of creating standards for women’s bodies that are unrealistic for most?  Not quite.   While I agree that all kinds of media fuel the fire that is our tendency as women to use (misuse) our bodies as holding grounds for all sorts of psychological material, I also think there is a far more productive conversation that we might have.  Do I think we should fight for truer and more representative images of real women doing real jobs and celebrating our minds and our capacities instead of our looks, so that our girls have substantive and legitimate models of greatness to which they can aspire?  Absolutely.  Do I wish for my own daughters that they will never once look at a photograph in a magazine and then at their own image in a mirror and experience a moment of disgust or longing?  Heck yes.  But there is more to this story.  The reality is that our susceptibility to the cultural phenomenon of perfection is fundamentally and essentially based not only on the images we see, but on our own psychology.

To all of you girls and women out there who struggle with doubts about your body, I ask you this:  What do you imagine would be different for you if you were thinner, or your hips were smaller, or your arms more muscular, or your abs more defined, or your calves smaller?  How do you imagine your life would change if you had another body—you know, the one you watch enviously at the gym every day or the one with which your best friend is blessed?   Would you be more intelligent, or  funnier; a better athlete, mother, lover, wife, or friend?  Would you have played more sports or had more boyfriends or been more popular in your youth?  What do you imagine would be different if you were just a little skinnier or a little tighter in those parts of yourself you so abhor?

There’s a funny thing about the human body and psyche; the former becomes a great vesicle for the latter.  Without delving too deeply here, the point is that we infuse into our experience of our bodies all sorts of psychological material, and, perhaps most conveniently, the psychological content that is most troubling to us.  We create defense mechanisms that help us function and navigate our relationships and other life content.  We are clever beings, and these defense mechanisms can do wonders for us, but we’d be silly to believe they come without cost or are effective forever.  Our bodies are convenient defensive tools, and for women also confronting social and cultural pressures to look a certain way, the allure of the body as holding ground for emotional content is deeply seductive.

What I’m getting at here is that when you spend your time and precious psychological resources focusing on how your life would be different if your body were different, you are likely missing something.   Just as addictions or obsessions or self-destructive relational patterns can be the result of unconscious issues, you may be using your body’s imperfections as a way of defending against feelings that are too complicated and hurtful to acknowledge.  If you’re in your forties and have been saying since college that your life would be better if you could just lose those ten pounds, there’s probably a psychological reason why you haven’t.  In fact, you’ve probably lost those pounds before, only to find them again somehow (suspicious, huh).  Maybe you didn’t keep them off for long enough even to assess how different your life really was.   Go figure.

I can remember when my kids were in diapers and I was in a mom’s group.  We would meet a park or at someone’s home to just hang out and have company while caring for our little ones.  I was always struck by the fact that a group of smart, talented, accomplished women who were once lawyers or doctors or fundraisers or musicians could so easily spend hours talking of absolutely nothing else but their children’s feeding and sleeping schedules.  I understand that new mothers are, by necessity and design, totally consumed by their babies.  Nevertheless, it always left a mark on me when I went home realizing that we had, once again, been sucked into the oblivion of nursing, pooping, and sleeping.  In a similar way, it blows my mind when women who are multifaceted individuals with all sorts of cool things to offer, who have great personalities, minds, ideas, jobs, etc., are completely and hopelessly consumed by a longstanding hatred of their bodies and a wish to be thinner or leaner or more beautiful.

How about if we spend our time and energy encouraging women to look inward and figure out what drives us to be so obsessed with our bodies being more perfect?  The answer will be different for each person, of course, and the content will have varying degrees of accessibility for each, but the analyzing is work that needs to be done.  If we could bottle the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and financial resources that go into our collective focus on our bodies and how we might have “better” ones, we’d have a seriously powerful resource we could use to tackle the world’s financial problems or solve world hunger or cure diseases that have escaped the figuring of scientists for eons.

If you’re one of the many women out there who struggle with a negative body image or hold tightly to that dream of being thinner or tighter or leaner, maybe what you imagine is actually right on.  Maybe if you were leaner, you might be actually be a better mother; you’d be making use of more parts of yourself than you are now, so focused on the work of being obsessed with fat.  You’d be less preoccupied and more focused on being a mom.  Maybe you actually would be “smarter;” your brain power would be directed towards endeavors other than how to eat the cookies you want without them manifesting in your thighs.  Maybe you actually would be a better friend, lover, or business partner.  You’d be far less busy with the full-time job of hating yourself.  It’s time to re-frame our discussion and focus.  Blaming the media hasn’t worked.  Take control of your own psychology and figure out why you’re not thinner, if that’s truly what you want for yourself.

One last note, so you don’t think I’m an ignorant fool who doesn’t understand or appreciate reality.  I am aware that our level of attractiveness and our body type is largely determined by genetics and that there is only so much we can do to change many aspects of our appearance.  I get it that science has shown repeatedly that people who are considered attractive reap social and financial benefits in our aesthetically driven culture.  But given this state of affairs, there is still quite a bit of work we can do to address what we do with the bodies we’ve been given, how we handle our perceived imperfections, and how much of ourselves we lose to the fight against all we think is wrong with ourselves physically.   It’s high time that our collective resources as women aren’t sucked dry by the fight to be perfect, whatever perfect looks like to each of us.

Like the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest, PR’s Happen off Camera: Finding Meaning in our Pursuits

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By Dr. Allison Belger

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Philosophers have pondered this question for years.  It’s an intriguing conundrum about human experience and perception dictating whether or not something has, in fact, occurred.

Over the past few months, I’ve thought about our need for validation and how much that need drives our work.  The topic originally came up for me as I began writing this blog several months ago.  With each post, I would receive feedback via social media, personal emails, and actual conversations.  I noticed in myself that with each Facebook “like” or Twitter retweet, I experienced a brief but noteworthy sense of excitement or validation—because someone out there had become my audience, for starters, and that he or she had enjoyed what I wrote.

In a conversation with some friends one night at dinner, we got to talking about the validation we receive when we put ourselves out there in the world, and how recognition can motivate us to keep doing what we’re doing.  One of the friends involved in this discussion happens to be a very well known and established blogger/public figure.  We talked about the flip side of validation and praise—the fact that one is equally susceptible to criticism and negative remarks when one offers up work to be consumed by an audience at large.  Our takeaway?  It’s best to avoid taking personally the sometimes harsh responses that might come our way and keep doing the work we believe in.  And as much as we might try to avoid reacting to the negative, we must also be careful not to place too much emphasis on, or be overly flattered by, the positive.

Ever since that dinner conversation, I’ve thought quite a bit about what drives me to write, what feeds the process, and for what reasons I continue each week–sometimes with more difficulty and less joy than others.  Is the validation from readers the factor that defines my commitment? Is it the pleasure of stringing of words together and the creation and linking of thoughts and content?  Would the satisfaction be the same if the articles stayed on my hard drive, never to be taken in by others?  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there…

With the proliferation of social media comes a vast and immediate audience for a variety of personal content.  Given my connection to the CrossFit community and the wider world of athletes who train seriously, my social media streams are inundated with people announcing personal bests accompanied by photos and video—providing legitimacy to their claims.  I’ve often thought about this phenomenon.  Does sharing successes at the gym or in sport drive athletes to perform better?  Does knowing that one’s workout statistics might be broadcast on the Internet make the workout matter more, raising the stakes and creating new meaning?  I’m guessing that the answers here are “yes.”  It is no secret that one of the benefits of group exercise is that we usually perform better in groups, partly because we are motivated by group energy, but partly because our results are up for comparison.  Completing a workout on one’s own, with nobody around and nobody to evaluate our performance, can be less motivating for some.

Could there be a drawback to this phenomenon?  Is there a problem if we need an audience or other recognition in order to do our best work?  If we dance with abandon, grace, and intensity at home all alone, does a lack of audience make it any less an achievement or expression of hard work and talent?  If we write a poem with lyrical sensibility and provocative content but share it with no one, is it any less powerful or significant than if it were published and distributed widely?  If we reach a new PR on our three-rep-max back squat but the video camera captures only one of those reps, does that make the effort any less inspiring or true?  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there…

Take some time to think about what drives the things you do with the greatest intensity and commitment.  Do you do it for the validation from others? Do you do it for the love of the game or the love of the work?  Does it only matter to you if certain people know about what you do and like it?  But what if they don’t?

For the most part, it’s probably optimal to be spending our time, effort, and other resources on work and pursuits that make us feel good in some way, regardless of the number of likes we get on Facebook or re-tweets on Twitter.  Fun and rewarding as the positives are, a negative comment or a day without likes might be just around the corner.  And then what?  Keep in mind the purpose of your endeavors, and the answer should be clear.  If you’re doing CrossFit, for example, there’s a good chance you started in order to improve your fitness and health.  Remember that, as you surpass your PR’s and acquire new party tricks–like muscle-ups, handstand pushups, and snatches–and want to show them to the world.  Both aspects are great, as long as you don’t forsake the former for the latter.

I realize that some endeavors require an audience, including many forms of artistic expression.  Much like the tree falling in the forest with no human ear to register and therefore “create” a resulting sound, the dancer or painter needs human perception to register the work.  But hang with me here:  The point today is to consider the balance between our need for an audience and our capacity to be satisfied and driven independent of others.

If an individual produces work of some kind (be it in sport or elsewhere), but nobody is there to witness it, does it actually happen?  Can it have meaning?  Hopefully, yes. 

It’s Just a Game…or Is It? Perspective Matters.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

People often talk about maintaining perspective.  When life gets tough and things don’t go our way, we try to make ourselves feel better by keeping perspective—reminding ourselves that things can always be worse, that at least we have our health, our job, our family.  We may take comfort in the fact that, compared to our friend who is going through a nasty divorce, or our daughter’s teacher whose child was hurt in a terrible accident, our life is just fine, thank you very much.  When we compete in a sport to which we’ve dedicated time, energy, and resources, and the outcomes are not in our favor, perhaps we tell ourselves something like, “It’s only a game,” or “Life is bigger than a CrossFit competition.”

There are some practical benefits and relief in maintaining this approach when life throws us curveballs.  Reminding ourselves of the positive aspects and blessings of our lives is a powerful tool to keep us grounded and aware of what matters most.  However, there may be a fine line between living with perspective and overstating the simplicity of “things could always be worse.”

For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches, instilled by loving parents who were able to hold onto perspective when life’s relatively minor insults crossed our paths.

But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more?  What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?  All sport, when it comes down to it, is always just a game.  But then what’s the point of training and commitment if it doesn’t really matter?  Why bother with all the work if, in the end, life is so much bigger than the game?

Life is, in fact, about our passionate pursuits–the activities that most engage us.  Might the “life is bigger than…” line be a way of sugar coating the reality and emotional impact of poor results despite our hard work and best efforts?  If our attitude is always that “it’s just a game,” it seems a slippery slope to conclude that “it’s only a job,” or “it’s just a house,” or “it’s just a marriage.”

Of course, our health and wellness and that of our loved ones always comes first; no argument there. But beyond that, who is to say that sport or any other endeavor to which we devote ourselves is “just a game” or “just a race” or “just a presentation.”  One bad day or one bad game may not comprise a crisis or tragedy, but our overall experiences are absolutely the substance of our lives, and their outcomes definitely matter.  These outcomes become the stuff of our lives, and trying to convince ourselves that they don’t have worth can be as problematic as overreacting to a single negative event as though it were a tragedy.

The point is this:  know what is important to you, know what you’re putting into your sport or your job or your relationships, and be sure that you are prioritizing appropriately.  When things go well, how great is that?  But when they don’t, let’s not pretend that life is bigger and that our losses don’t matter; life IS comprised of these events and outlets, and finding a balance is vital.  Live it, love it, and enjoy the successes, but take time also to appreciate and process the downside in order to find meaning and grow with the challenge of loss.  It’s okay to mourn bad sport outcomes, just as it’s acceptable to lament other endeavors gone awry.  Learn from the experiences, the feelings, the losses, and move on with whatever it is that matters to you and warrants your focus moving forward.  Onward you’ll go.

**Related reading:  Had a Bad Day, Now What?

Triggered? Now What? Be Better This Time.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*You come to the gym not knowing the workout. You’re in a relatively good mood and the cute guy who joined last week is in class.  While you’re stretching, you read the white board and see that the skill you’ve been struggling with for literally years is part of the workout.  Your stomach turns.  While you know you need to keep plugging away at this skill and you’re open to working on your weaknesses, you also know that sometimes you just want to come to the gym and feel good—not address any long-term deficits or mobility issues or areas of weakness.  Today, apparently, won’t be one of those days.  You end up distracted and unable to focus on the strength training, which you love.

*You head out to the mall to run some errands during the small window of time you have for yourself while your kids are at school.  You are racing from store to store, checking things off your list.  You decide to give yourself a minute to try on some cute tops in the women’s department.  While you’re browsing the aisles in your workout clothes, you see out of the corner of your eye a woman with whom you used to work.  She is dressed to the nines with clean and bouncy hair.  You’re not up for chit-chatting and have limited time, so you head into the fitting room with a few items in tow, only to be confronted by the two-way mirror.  You notice back fat that you haven’t noticed before, and you hate the way the shirts look on you.  You start feeling the blood rise to your face, you toss the other items on the bench, and you head out of the store the back way, hoping to not bump into anyone else you know.

*You’re in a business meeting pitching an ad idea to a coveted company.  You’ve prepared a great presentation and are feeling sharp.  Two minutes into your presentation, your boss jumps in with his two cents and ends up taking over where you left off.  You’re pissed as all get out but have to take it in stride, so as not to risk losing the account (not to mention your job).   You’re then forced to be polite and forget what went before when your boss asks you to attend a working lunch at a restaurant.   You end up making a snide comment that you feel might “mark” you for life in the company’s book.

*You’re scheduled to have dinner with a good friend and are looking forward to catching up and having some time for yourself.  You’ve  showered, arranged for your husband to be home early from work to cover the kids, and you’re about to get in the car.  You receive a text saying your friend has to cancel because she’s not feeling well.  You text back “No problem,” take a minute to catch your breath, and head back into the house, only to snap at your five-year-old five minutes later, for no real reason.

*You’re playing in an adult league basketball game, doing well and enjoying the sweat.  The referee calls two fouls on you in the first five minutes.  You’re not playing any more aggressively than you normally do.  Third foul is called and a warning given.  You end up losing your cool and telling the ref he sucks.  You get kicked out of the game.

We all have triggers.  Sometimes, they’re more obvious than others.  They can come in the form of actions of other people, random things we face in our daily lives, our own shortcomings, or even the weather.  There’s no getting around the fact that we all have buttons—parts of ourselves that, when pushed, lead to a slippery slope of emotional charge that often ends in bad behavior or a negative state of mind.  There is little we can do to protect ourselves from the wide world of triggers. Rather, our goal should be to explore and try to understand what makes us vulnerable to the unique triggers in our lives.

Triggers and buttons develop over time, based on an accumulation of psychological history that we may not fully comprehend.  We may not, for example, realize that the reason we are so crushed by our friend canceling a dinner date actually dates back to our father’s habit of no-showing for our gymnastics meets when we were ten and excited about the new leotards and our back-handspring tricks.  We may or may not recognize that our anger on the basketball court has much to do with self-doubt and a lack of confidence at our job.  Our struggle with the skill at the gym may be linked to the times in high school when our demanding soccer coach humiliated us for not being able to juggle more than five consecutive strikes.  The scenarios go on and on.

The thing about triggers is that they are typically seen and felt as being beyond our control—things the world hands to us that have more to do with fate than any act of will on our part.  As much as that can fire us up and make us feel victimized, it’s actually an easy out.  It demands little of us and encourages us to fall back on longstanding patterns and reactions, regardless of their inefficacy and negative impact.  Call them defense mechanisms if you like.  The thing is, we are the ones who suffer.  We get triggered, we react negatively, and we don’t do the kind of investigating that will result in a different, more measured response the next time around.

So next time you’re triggered by the world, take a deep breath, snap a mental picture of the moment, and take a minute to jot down or email to yourself a quick note to remind you of the incident.  It could be something like: “Double under stress at the gym,” or “ Feeling unattractive at the mall.”  Commit to not responding outwardly or emotionally in the moment.  Instead, make time for yourself later that day (we’re all busy, but ten minutes is possible if you care enough) and think about what it is that got you riled.  Maybe it’s no mystery—your mom always looked fabulous and you were her chubby daughter who seemed to embarrass her.  So your job is to try to acknowledge that you’re an adult now and it’s time to stop giving so much power to that history.  Jot down five things about yourself that you like and one thing you’d like to change.  Then get to work on it.

You need to take back some control over the external events and behaviors that affect you in negative ways.  While you can’t change the way people treat you or the random run-ins you have in the world, you can certainly do some self-reflection to determine why your buttons are pushed—and then modify your reactions and responses.

The truth is that some of our hottest buttons and most sensitive trigger points are so easily activated that they almost engage on their own—it’s as if we go through life expecting hurts and anticipating insults from our past.  This kind of anticipatory agitation almost guarantees full-blown activation at the smallest indication of insult.  If you feel like you’re walking around ready to be triggered, you probably have some soul-searching and emotional work to do.  But it’s work that’s well worth the effort—far more rewarding than mastering double unders or muscle-ups in the grand scheme of life, and way more impactful in positive ways on our loved ones!

Life is short.  Gain control of your psychological self and minimize your trigger receptivity.  The world is more friendly and relationships are more harmonious when we live with a little more enlightenment and a little less reactivity and guardedness.

Reflections on 9/11 and Connection

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By Dr. Allison Belger

This has been one of those weeks for me: an unexpected and negative life intrusion for a close friend, the first week of school for my kids, a new gym in the final phases of construction, and my younger daughter’s birthday.  It’s been exhausting, stressful, and busy–new beginnings and excitement tempered by concern.

This has also been a week of reflection—not just for me, but for all of us.  Wednesday was September 11th, a day that for many will never come around without conjuring darkness and doubt—much like December 7, 1941, for past generations–a day that will live in infamy.  As I read posts on Facebook from people inviting us to remember and reaching out to those who lost loved ones, I got to thinking about how this kind of tragedy, with its shared suffering and loss, brings people together from all backgrounds and walks of life.  9/11 moved us in ways that cross divides—racial and ethnic, educational, economic and social.

As we are touched in our hearts and souls, we do not differentiate between victims who are black or white, rich or poor, bankers or janitors. True, the first responders hold a special place in our hearts with the magnitude of their sacrifice and loss of life trying to save others.  What we share as a nation is the collective experience of horror, sadness, shock, and mourning.  In the aftermath, we also share the simple desire to live in peace, with the conviction and psychological containment that we and our loved ones are safe and out of harm’s way.

There is nothing I can say about September 11th that hasn’t already been said.  My focus for today is about capturing something from that powerful, shared experience to connect us across the divides described above.  One of the most liberating aspects of growing up, in my mind, is the ability to understand those who are different from us, with increasing freedom from judgment and fear. Despite some great progress in our education system, which now attempts to enlighten our young people and teach them to embrace diversity, the bottom line is that we are a species prone to categorization, trying to define and fit into our own tribes.  Perhaps adolescence is the peak period for such “us” and “them” struggles.  The tumultuous years of adolescent emotional insecurity are marked by a need to identify and bond with a group as an insider, which is often accompanied by an aversion to those who are designated as outsiders.

Life after college seems to offer the space for a more open-minded existence.  With maturity and a more relaxed internal state, we are usually better able to accept and welcome differences; we may be less fearful of being judged and less likely to judge others.  Increasingly, there are powerful moments and experiences in our lives that drive us toward connections crossing categories of difference.  Connecting in these ways without the catalyst of a universal tragedy is the ideal.

Here’s where the sport and life part comes in:  As I sit waiting for my daughter’s soccer game to begin, I think about the psychological function of being part of a team and playing other teams, and how that interaction can bring together kids of diverse backgrounds—both as teammates and competitors.  As adults, we have fewer opportunities to participate in team sport, but there are possibilities.  The CrossFit movement is known for bringing people together from vastly different backgrounds. In my recent book, you can find an exploration of this and other forums of connection through group effort, exercise, movement, and sport.   There is a huge variety of affinity groups out there—including bikers and hikers, running communities, backpacking clubs and more—and each can offer connection and shared experiences that feed our souls along with our bodies.

Other opportunities abound, if we are open to them.  The goal is to find ways of tapping into our souls via sustained effort with others, harnessing a drive or desire that moves us on some meaningful level and allows us to experience a common ground we might not otherwise share.  We will be better people, a better species, if we can connect in the present–beyond 9/11 and other shared losses–and allow for the possibility of letting others, no matter our differences, enter our lives.  Is this all too contrived, sentimental or trite?  Could be.  But maybe not.   It’s a risk I’m willing to take this week.

Your Fear of Missing out Just Might be Causing you to Miss Out.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I spent this past week in Disneyland with my family.  We don’t vacation often, but when we do, I usually try to get in as many workouts as I can—not because I’m doing any serious training, but because I know I am a better person when I exercise, and I enjoy my vacation far more when I keep up with the endorphin production.   Despite my ongoing drive to move my body, there is typically a moment when I start my internal discussion about how necessary it really is for me to work out while away, and how nice it might be to rest completely.  The voices on both sides of the ‘argument’ always make great points.  This is a process I avoid completely when I’m in my routine at home; working out is pretty automatic for me, so the dialogue rarely kicks in except when I’m away.  I believe that people are either inherent exercisers or they’re not; some individuals have to force themselves to be consistent, and for others—like me—it’s almost like breathing and eating.

While negotiating with myself about one final hotel workout yesterday morning, I got to thinking about what makes people train when they are sick and not feeling up to it, or are not scheduled to do so.  I started thinking about people I know who are unable to hear about other people’s training and workouts without feeling the need to train themselves.  These are athletes who are compelled to match the personal bests of others, even on a day when they are supposed to be recovering.  These are individuals who read about workout sessions going on at their gym and must join in, despite a planned rest day, or a head cold, or an extremely busy schedule. These are athletes who can’t stand to hear about their team’s training session if they were unable to attend, so they cram in a workout at night to be sure they don’t get left behind.

Ever hear of FOMO?  It stands for Fear of Missing Out.  It’s a social phenomenon of sorts that has exploded with the proliferation of social media in our culture.  Fear of Missing Out is a type of anxiety that one experiences when not involved in some kind of social outing or event; it is the discomfort caused by not being part of an opportunity that we think others are enjoying.  With Facebook posts, Twitter Feeds, Instagram photos, and other streams of happy faces doing extra-fun and super-amazing things, onlookers have endless reasons to feel they are missing out. Much like my sense that people are either natural exercisers or not, my gut feeling about FOMO has always been that people are either wired to have lots of FOMO or not.   There are recent studies exploring some psychological correlates of FOMO, but I’m not going to delve into that research here.  I’m on vacation, after all!

I’ve often thought about the compelling pull to be a part of a social event; the wonder of unknown happenings with so much seductive power has puzzled me since middle school.  It seems that when we succumb to FOMO, we allow that fear of missing something to prevent our full engagement in what we are doing in the moment, making it unlikely that we will enjoy or benefit from our current activity. If our gut says that being at home with a good book is desirable, then why question this choice simply because we discover that someone else is partying?  If we have a family commitment that will allow us to connect with our loved ones, then why intrude on that gift simply because some friends are at a bar posting cute photos on our social media channels?   Maybe we are snuggled up with hot cocoa and that book because we are feeling stressed and know it’s time to take care of ourselves. Until, of course, we get a text from a friend saying she is getting together with a running group to do a favorite trail run.

Athletes hear it all the time now: rest and recovery are as important to your success in your sport and to your long-term health and wellness as is your training. But when training Fear Of Missing Out kicks in, many will question whether today should actually be a day of rest.  Athlete FOMO also seems to occur in the context of missing out on “THE” way to train or “THE” best coaching method, or “THE” best programming approach.  Individuals can be so busy searching for the latest fad in training that they compromise their focus in their current workouts and never get out of them what they had hoped to accomplish.  The dangers of FOMO may be especially prevalent for those engaged in the relatively new sport of CrossFit.  Despite the frenzy for finding just the right individualized program, training route or theoretical approach, CrossFit athletes who have had consistent success on the competitive playing field will tell you over and over that hard work, consistency, and full immersion in your training is key.  There is no magic ticket, and you’re not missing out on some secret path.

Indeed, there is no “Right Way” to train for any sport, and the bottom line is, and always will be, that full engagement in what you are doing is far more important than searching for the perfect training scheme as seen on Facebook or Instagram or even your favorite blog. Greater success might be attainable if only you could buckle down and focus, free from that wandering eye of FOMO that tricks you into thinking you’re missing out on something better.

My father, a physician whose specialty is infectious disease, talks about the FOMO he experienced as a young resident.  There was an allure about caring for a critically ill patient at three in the morning.  If you had finally gone home from the hospital but thought that this kind of excitement was happening without you, you could lie awake missing precious minutes of sleep, feeling that you’d missed out on The Big Case that night.

In the end, all kinds of FOMO can be self-defeating. As we engage our psychological and emotional resources in wondering what is so exceptional outside the doors of our domain (or with the typical “grass is always greener” syndrome), we ensure that we cannot possibly be fully present where we actually are.   We guarantee that we won’t take in completely the smell of our mom’s home-baked bread, or absorb our kids’ jokes, or respond to our best friend’s sadness, or take the time to reflect on our own thoughts and dreams.   Perhaps it’s time we rested assured that whatever is going on out there will still be there tomorrow.  And when tomorrow comes, bringing with it the opportunity to participate, let’s hope we do so without checking Twitter updates on our iPhone, yearning to be elsewhere.

**Related articles from the PsychologyWOD archives:

On Living in the Moment:  http://wp.me/p3fbdX-6H

On the Mental Toughness it Takes to Rest and Recover:  http://wp.me/p3fbdX-7u