Making Sure There’s a Forest in Your Trees: Taking Stock of Your Personal Pursuits.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The idiom,“You can’t see the forest for the trees,” reminds us that sometimes, if your vantage point is too close, it is difficult or impossible to take in the whole picture. We often use this to describe what happens when people get so consumed by details that they can’t appreciate the totality of a situation.  Like viewing a painting from so close that your focus is on the individual brush strokes or fine lines, taking in an experience from the inside, only, might prevent you from making sense of the overall image.

It’s been almost three months since I posted my last article on this blog.  Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to take a break from writing, I followed my gut and didn’t push a new topic until one came to me naturally. Yes, the chaos of the holidays and some significant work events played a role here, but mostly I write when I feel like writing and/or when an idea with legs surfaces on its own.  When that didn’t happen for an extended period of time, I went with it; doing so gave me a renewed conviction that I should only write when I am inspired. Since starting this blog three years ago, I have come to realize that I write for pleasure and to share ideas with my readers; this is not my “job,” nor do I write in order to sell a product or build a brand. Were I never to allow myself to go with the ebb and flow of ideas and drive to write, I’d likely force the writing, and both my enjoyment of the process and the quality of my content would suffer.

As I’ve written before, it can be quite difficult to take a few steps back and evaluate a pursuit in which we’ve become personally invested.  Discussing the process of considering a break from training for a particular sport or physical challenge, I wrote the following in 2013:

Having the capacity to make changes in our lives is critical.  Having the courage to shake up our own status quo is hard.  Familiarity is comforting, even when imperfect.  The idea of stepping away from something to which we’ve given a solid chunk of ourselves is frightening.  Maybe it’s the feeling that all of the time, energy, planning, we have put into the endeavor will seem like a big waste if we leave it behind.  Perhaps we are afraid that we won’t find anything else to fill the void…Then there’s the addiction element: perhaps something about our training and physical pursuits serves a function far greater than fulfilling our competitive drive or helping to keep us in shape.  Maybe, like any addiction, it has become a way to prevent ourselves from feeling something we are afraid to feel or from knowing something about ourselves that we are afraid to face.

This analysis, I think, applies to far more than physical training. If we are so immersed in the day-to-day of any pursuit—be it a relationship, a job, a hobby-turned-obsession—that we can no longer see the forest for the trees, it might be time for a new perspective.  Many of us, as parents, encourage our kids to do this all the time: if you’re playing a sport five out of seven-days-a-week year round, perhaps it’s time to check in and be sure it’s still rewarding and fun.  Has that spontaneous and joyful experience of jamming with some friends become a tedious band practice every day?  Maybe it’s time to put down the guitar, and listen to that inner voice about what you find positive and meaningful. Most likely there’s a balance to strike or a change to be made that invites the joy of the pursuit back in.

As adults, we are just as easily consumed by our projects and habits and hobbies and commitments. The trees may seem lovely enough, but how’s that forest doing? My message this week as I come back from my own brief hiatus is this: Be sure to step back from time to time, take in the big picture at the expense of the details, and assess your relationship to the ways you are spending your time, finances, energy, and precious psychological resources. Have your activities become automatic, lacking in spirit and resonance?

The good news is that there’s always time for change.  But, like almost everything in life, making something different happen will likely require an open mind and some emotional fortitude.  Stick with it; the process and outcome are worth it

The Slippery Slope of the “Things Could Always be Worse” Perspective.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The other day on Facebook, a good friend posted something that had happened to her kids. One of them, a pre-teen and budding photographer, had lost a file of treasured pictures from his hard drive. The other, age eight, had melted down after discovering that his Legos had been unexpectedly tidied up in his absence, though he was in the midst of a grand building scheme.  As parents often do, my friend was reflecting on the events and the meaning she and her kids had each made of the losses they’d suffered.

So often, we talk about how to help our kids (and ourselves) maintain perspective when they, or we, encounter loss or endure an insult of some kind. In the example of my friend and her two boys, the parental message was one of a splash of empathy mixed with a big dose of perspective: bottom line? Nobody has Ebola, so it’s time to move on, right?

Yes, but…

I am fortunate to have been raised by hardworking, successful parents who could afford some of the finer things in life and made a point of encouraging new experiences and opportunities for me and my brother.  Their work ethic and desire to provide for their kids trickled down to me, and my resulting M.O. is to raise my daughters to have a work ethic and drive of their own, an inner sense of civic responsibility and the importance of giving back, and a childhood free of serious financial burdens.  Sounds perfect, right?

Well, things aren’t always so streamlined and clear. Many people in our social circles struggle with the same questions my parents faced decades ago: How do we raise children in relative comfort without a sense of entitlement or tendency to overreact when confronted by minor adversity? How do we develop in our children an appreciation of their good fortune compared to the challenges faced by so many in the world around them?  How do we instill a work ethic and solid values, while giving them so much “stuff”?  These questions have been debated for years, but my focus here is slightly different: how can we provide genuine empathy when our kids hit bumps in the road—acknowledging their disappointments and distress while maintaining perspective and helping them stay grounded.

I’ve written on this topic before, dealing with the “it’s just a game” mantra when things don’t go our way in sport:

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… 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?

So when our budding photographer loses his cherished photographs in middle school or our eight-year-old comes home to find his Lego village destroyed, our instinct is to remind them that it’s important to keep perspective.  We tell them that “it’s not the end of the world,” that they can always take more photos and build a new Lego city.  In fact, we might add in frustration how lucky they are to have fancy cameras and hard drives and Legos, which 90% of the world’s children can only dream about.  And, besides (we might pile on), many kids with cancer or who’ve lost a parent, or who are in foster care, would give up their cameras and Legos in a heartbeat for a chance at health and stability.  Indeed, when my nine-year-old daughter had moments of fatigue this summer while juggling her soccer ball to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital, you can be sure I whipped out the “suck-it-up-because-you-don’t-have-cancer-message” one time too many.

Our intentions are good. We are doing our best to create grounded kids with a sense of appreciation and perspective. But here’s the problem: it can be all too easy to go overboard and raise kids whose cuts and scrapes never get acknowledged, because someone else lost a limb. We can create kids whose psyches resonate with the message of “things could always be worse,” and are never allowed to acknowledge any loss in their lives.  Their dad might be away on business trips five out of seven nights a week, but at least they have a dad.  Their mom might be starving herself to fit into her party jeans, but at least she makes their lunch every day, and it’s packed in a monogrammed lunch box. They may have lost their championship soccer game, but how lucky to be able to pay for the traveling team, to be healthy and have the experience of competitive soccer in the first place.

It’s a slippery slope, the perspective one, and I’m here today to give voice to the importance of having our little “owies” acknowledged, bandaged, and cared for. We all need to feel that we are heard, seen, and nurtured, no matter the big picture.  And while this strategy refers mostly to parenting, it also applies to how we treat ourselves. If we grow up being told over and over that things could always be worse, that we are so fortunate to have what we have and be who we are, we just might end up trying secretly and desperately to find a REAL reason to be taken seriously and cared for, with outcomes that are far from ideal.

The lifelong message is to keep in mind the importance of acknowledging and validating the pain and disappointment of our everyday losses while also understanding and appreciating the big picture and the positive aspects of our lives. This balance is as tricky as life balances get, but with all the self-help and parenting advice that gets thrown around these days, especially in circles of privilege, it is well worth remembering.

 

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From the Mouths of Babes; Sometimes the Best Content Comes from the Youngest Minds!

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By. Dr. Allison Belger

It’s nice when you’re super busy, and your 9-year-old can do your writing for you! That’s what happened this afternoon. The article below is written by my daughter, Hollis, who worked her tail off this summer juggling her soccer ball and blogging about her efforts in order to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  As of this post, she has raised more than $31,000 for St. Jude, and is going strong through September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  A Psychologist/Mom, I encouraged her to take some time to reflect on her experience as she prepares to head back to school tomorrow.  Below is her post in its entirety. If you’re interested in more on her summer effort, please visit http://www.jugglingforjude.com.

I’m going back to school tomorrow, and since my mom is a psychologist, she suggested that I take some time to reflect on my summer experience of raising money for St. Jude Hospital.  I’m not done yet! My donation page is still open till the end of September, and I plan to keep asking for donations!  But the daily juggling is done and now it’s time to get back to school.  Juggling for Jude has been a GREAT experience, and I have definitely learned a whole lot. I think I look at life in a different way now.

*I’ve learned that you can always make a change in the world.

*I’ve learned that small people can be capable of wonderful things.

*I’ve learned that I’m a good soccer juggler.

*I’ve learned that you can really do anything you set your mind to. It’s not just a quote–it’s really a true story! 🙂  (My mom likes this one the best)!

*I’ve learned that St. Jude is a great hospital and every kid should feel thankful that St. Jude exists. Even if you don’t have cancer, because they work to find cures, and really you never know what the future holds.

*I’ve learned that kids with cancer at St. Jude are the ones really doing the hard work. 

*I’ve learned that you should always set your sights and goals high.  The more you strive for, the more you will accomplish.

*I’ve learned that if you push through the hard parts in life, even when it feels really hard, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel.  You just have to keep with it.

*I’ve learned that there are amazing people in the world and many of them donated for Juggling for Jude. People can really come together to make a difference, and I am so lucky that people did that for my fundraiser.

Thank you for your support and your donations so far. And don’t forget, I’M NOT QUITE DONE YET!  My DONATION PAGE will stay open through the end of September in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so please donate if you can and tell ALL of your friends and family to donate.  I really think we can get closer to $40,000, and that would mean more help for the kids at St. Jude who are fighting every second of every day! So, let’s go for it!

Oh, and one last thing: I still want to be on The Ellen Show. I think it would be super fun (I mean she’s funny, and I’m funny!), and I could juggle, and we could raise more money for St. Jude. So if you know how to help make that happen, please help!

Thanks for your support!

~Hollis

There’s Hard and Then There’s HARD.

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By. Dr. Allison Belger

If you follow me on social media, you know that I’ve spent much of my time and energy this summer supporting my nine-year-old daughter in a fabulous fundraising event called Juggling for Jude.  For those of you who don’t know, the gist is that she has been juggling her soccer ball daily to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  At the time of this article, she has raised nearly $30,000 in two short months, and her most recent juggling record is 461, alternating feet.  No small feat, and not your average summer lemonade stand!

As one often does when being personally invested in a significant venture, I’ve learned quite a few things during this summer of Juggling for Jude.  One of the themes that has surfaced for my daughter is how to fight through the times that are “hard.”  During a recent conversation about it, as I reflected on her tenacity and hard work, it occurred to me that I’ve learned much about what “hard” means in the past couple of months.  Here’s a sampling:

*It’s hard to juggle a soccer ball hundreds or thousands of times every  day. This is especially true if you if you are nine and have a broken toe.

*It’s hard to ask friends and family to donate money, even if it is for a great cause.  It’s even harder to ask them more than once.

*It’s hard to make your kid juggle a soccer ball when she is feeling tired and has plenty of other things to do.

*It’s hard to (cold) contact celebrities and news organizations in an effort to spread the word about a fundraiser, in hopes of increasing donations.

*It’s hard to be sure your other child isn’t feeling left out.

*It’s hard to add a new project to a family’s already packed schedule.

*It’s hard to juggle a soccer ball when it’s windy.  It’s also hard to juggle a soccer ball when it’s 100 degrees outside and you’ve already been to dance camp and soccer practice.

You know what else is hard?

*It’s hard to be a middle schooler who sticks up for the kid getting bullied at school.

*It’s hard to tell someone you love that you are worried they drink too much.

*It’s hard to say no to your high school peers when they offer you a shot of vodka.

*It’s hard to take a risk on hiring an employee who lacks the credentials for a job but whose work ethic, commitment, and capacity for growth seem legitimate.

*It’s hard to not join in when all of your friends are giggling about the fat kid and what she’s wearing.

*It’s hard to approach someone who is awkward and shy and invite him to eat lunch with you and your “cool” friends.

*It’s hard to organize meal deliveries for a friend whose spouse is fighting cancer.

*It’s hard to change your lifestyle in order to improve your health.

*It’s hard to train for your sport five hours each day.

*It’s hard to ask for help when you need it but are usually the one people seek out when they are in need.

Each of us encounters hardships in our lives; it’s how we attack these challenges that comprise our character and make up who we are. Sometimes we drop the ball–we quit juggling too early or we pretend we don’t hear our friends giggling as the fat girl walks by.  We act like we don’t see the awkward student sitting alone, or we choose to hire the person who has the “right” credentials, even though our gut tells us that the other candidate might be a better fit for the job.  We accept a cup of vodka punch to avoid being teased, or we put off confronting our alcoholic family member, convincing ourselves that he will stop on his own or that it’s not our place to step in.

Sometimes, though, we gather our strength, harness our determination, and fight our battles with tenacity and perseverance.  We acknowledge the challenges, perhaps even engage in some self-pity, but move forward with the task at hand.  If we are lucky, we may be able to tolerate the time between the positive action and the reward for having done it.  Sometimes, we even have to accept the fact that the only reward we will receive is knowing we did the right thing.  There will be no trophy or medal or party.

You know what’s REALLY hard?

Being told your child has cancer and watching him or her go through a battle that makes any other battle seem like a walk in the park.  And being a child with cancer?  Harder than we can fathom.

Keep fighting when faced with your own personal hard, and always keep in mind the continuum of what challenges exist in the world.  Commit to yourself that you will push through challenges and stick with the hard times, but be sure to keep perspective.  Should you ever be faced with the unfathomable, the hope is that your training will guide you.

If you would like to donate to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on behalf of Juggling for Jude, please do so here.

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:

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

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

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

https://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:

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

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

 

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.

There is not One Right Way: Acknowledge Your Influences and Appreciate that Yours is but One Perspective.

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Yesterday I was driving our daughters to a rehearsal, and the word “irony” came up.  Our nine-year-old wanted a refresher on the meaning of that word, which we’d discussed before.  This led to a conversation about genetics and the nature / nurture conundrum.  Beefy stuff.   It was one of those conversations that left me fully in awe of my role as parent, one of the times when I realized that my daughters’ world view–their understanding of critical concepts, their opinions about social/cultural phenomena, and their belief systems in general–are all informed first and foremost by mine and my husband’s points of view.  Teachers, grandparents, friends, coaches, and others will all have an impact, but the reality is that our lens as parents has a profound and lasting impact on the worldview of our children.

My job as a psychologist for many years was conducting assessments of children, adolescents, and young adults who were struggling in some way.  Not surprisingly, in most cases the difficulties in the presenting client were embedded in a family in which others also struggled. Day in and day out, I was privy to the significant and immeasurable effects of parenting on children.  The point wasn’t (and isn’t) to blame parents; rather the idea was to appreciate the enormity of the job and the myriad ways things could go wrong and lead a child astray in some important psychological way.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I’m not a big bumper sticker lover, but this one always makes me pause and read it twice.  I like the message.  It’s a good reminder to acknowledge that our belief systems–our opinions and perspectives—are just that: OURS. They are not facts or truths, even if we tell ourselves they are.  They are the outcome of a number of influences, starting with the perspective and psychological standing of our parents and earliest caregivers. Having a stance and firm beliefs is important, and developing a point of view is one of the great gifts of the human experience.  However, it is important to keep in mind the subjectivity of our lens and view, lest we convince ourselves (and our children) that our opinions and ways of seeing and doing things are the only true and final ones.

As I’ve written before, it is important to be able to sift through the many influences available to us in order to come to an informed decision that works for us.  Choosing anything–from a workout program or specific methodology for learning a new skill, to a school for our children, to a healthcare provider–is a critical undertaking that forces us to call upon our own convictions in conjunction with the opinions and influences of those around us. And once we make such choices, we invite the influence of these providers (our kids’ teachers, our coaches, our doctors, the news reporters we watch) who will contribute to the way we view the world and the choices we will make in the future.

As you arrive at the big, tough decisions, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself and acknowledge the long and winding road that has led to where you are. Don’t get trapped into accepting the advice of an “expert” without stepping back and evaluating the decision-making process. There is almost always not just one answer to a question, one definition of a word, one theory to espouse, or one way of training for your sport of choice. Appreciate the in-between: hang out there long enough to come out the other side with a course of action that works for YOU, for now. There will always be time to revisit your choices with new information and experience—and, in fact, it behooves you to do so lest your beliefs become your dogma.

The Downsides of Performance Goals (or Why Letting Go Sometimes Leads to the Greatest Gains).

 

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I received a message on Facebook this week from a psychologywod reader who often responds with great ideas of his own.  This time, Fred Callori wrote,

I have become aware in myself and from observing others that there is this tendency to perform beyond our own personal expectations right after we decide that “we just don’t care anymore.”

How counter-intuitive does this seem? We stop caring, and we start meeting expectations that, just days ago, had seemed unattainable, despite our great focus and desire.  Anecdotally, though, this is a phenomenon that rings true.  I often work with people who are determined to reach certain fitness or physical goals, doing everything they are “supposed to do,” including caring a whole lot about the outcome.  But sometimes people get in their own way; investing so much of themselves in the desired objective may, in fact, prevent them from putting forth their best effort.  It’s as if the caring and obsessive focus on the goal makes people so anxious or afraid that they are unable to follow through.

We hear time and again that declaring a goal publicly is the first step in ensuring that we will stick with it.  We are told to share with friends and family our New Year’s resolutions: something about the act of telling other people leads to an accountability we might not otherwise capture. However, I do believe there’s another side to this approach; declaring goals out loud to others and professing that we will reach them can lead to a certain type of backlash.  So much unconscious material can become infused into our goals, especially when they involve our bodies—whether for esthetic change or for performance improvement.  As I’ve written about before here and here, we often project our past psychology into our physical selves in ways that are confusing, complicated, and difficult to unravel.  Our physical goals may then become more challenging than we ever imagined.

After all, for most of us, it’s no mystery how to lose a few pounds or run a faster mile at the track. It’s no mystery how to go from lifting 150 pounds off the floor to 175 pounds over the course of several months with regular, guided training sessions.  It’s not rocket science to follow a thoughtful mobility or yoga program and improve flexibility. And yet, so many of us set goals like these and fail to reach them. Until that magic moment when we decide to stop caring.

Admittedly this phenomenon doesn’t happen in a single moment, but it sometimes can occur pretty quickly.  You see, when we set goals, make them known to others (coaches, friends, family members), and enlist their help and support, we set in motion a wide range of interpersonal and psychological events, most of which are not consciously recognized.  We may, for example, replay an early relationship with our father, whose expectations could never be met.  We may recall feelings of envy for our middle-school friend who always beat us on the timed mile, no matter how hard we tried. On the other hand, we may be reminded of the envy felt by our best friend in high school when we made the varsity football team and he played on the freshman squad.  All sorts of internal material can be thrown into the mix when we care deeply about a performance goal and can’t quite seem to reach it, taking into account not only our own hopes and dreams, but the perceptions and judgments of others. Often these are projections of our own insecurities.

Sometimes the letting go of the goal and of the desire to perform allows us to shake off those demons, release ourselves from the intensity of the pursuit, and remove the relational and psychological implications of it all. With this release comes the possibility for our bodies to do what they have been striving for all along.

Makes sense, right?  Stop the madness of caring (and looping in all of those complex issues that make us human), and let your body do its thing.  I know it’s not always this simple, but then, sometimes it really is.  You can fight hard and persist to obtain a skill, lift a weight, run a certain amount in a certain time, lose pounds, achieve a muscle-up, win a tennis match, earn a handicap on the golf course.  But until you let go of all the loaded meaning that success and failure hold for you and your relationships, you may struggle in vain. This is what we mean when we say things like, “It’s all mental” or “If only my head didn’t get in the way.”

Let it go, People!  Sometimes you need to allow yourself the freedom from caring too much. Just get out there, relax, tone down the effort, enjoy your physical self, and you’re likely to make gains that were so elusive when you were trying too hard.