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

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.

Back to Basics: Taking Care of Your Psychological Self

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Serious athletes training for sport often seek the services and guidance of a variety of specialists. From massage therapists, to chiropractors, to running or gymnastics coaches, it often “takes a village” to keep athletes going strong in their sport of choice.  Perhaps you can relate: you may pay a specialty coach or follow certain blogs or consult with experts you hope will propel you to the next level of awesome.

In our pursuit of optimal performance, both in sport and in life, we often forget a critical factor affecting us in profound and complex ways: our psychological profile and functioning. While sport psychologists are increasingly included as part of an athlete’s team of advisors–a good thing–what I am referring to here is a different kind of attention given to caring for our psychological selves.

Many athletes at all levels–including the serious, elite, and everyday–fail to address the fundamental aspect of who they are.  Since our psychological functioning affects everything we do, it behooves us to take a good look at what’s going on inside and to take seriously the impact of our personalities and emotional standing in all areas of our lives.

We hear it all the time: train your weaknesses.  We are told to be sure to attack physical skills that challenge us most, so that we may be well rounded and efficient in our athletic endeavors.  But we sometimes ignore the biggest weakness of all—the one that affects us most profoundly, both on and off the field: our psyches, the foundation of who we are and how we function. Our psychological vulnerabilities are present in all we do–from our training and performance in sport, to our jobs, to our hobbies, to our relationships.

This week’s post is meant to serve as a reminder to explore your psychological self, possibly with the help of a psychologist. If you are struggling with any aspect of your life, do yourself a favor and address the foundation of all you do. Get back to basics. Deal with the forces that make you tick.  Like a smart coach who pushes you to rework the technique of your front squat, deadlift or pushup, a savvy therapist will help you address the most fundamental aspects of who you are.  You’re in this for the long haul, after all, and the sooner you do the work to create a stronger foundation, the more likely you are to achieve your desired goals, both in sport and in life.

Related reading from the archives:

https://psychologywod.com/2013/06/30/heads-up-your-latest-and-greatest-pursuit-just-might-be-a-decoy/

https://psychologywod.com/2013/07/21/mental-illness-mental-health-and-the-in-betweens-the-beginning-of-an-open-discussion-with-drew-canavero/

https://psychologywod.com/2014/01/17/life-in-the-in-between/

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

The 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.