Many of my clients have recently heard me talk about the benefits and limitations of willpower and self-control. The Marshmallow Test designed by Dr. Walker Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s first sparked my interest in this issue. (Any test involving sugar gets my attention.) For the study, Mischel gave 500 4-year-olds the option of eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. Years later, he caught up with these same children as teenagers and adults. The children who had been willing to wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows as pre-schoolers, actually scored higher on the SATs as teens, and in adulthood had lower body mass indices, less drug abuse, and fewer divorces. Are you contemplating which group you would have been in?
Pamela Druckerman in the February 4, 2012, Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, “Why French Parents are Superior,” shared that French parents actually teach self-control to their babies. French moms do not rush into their newborn’s room the second that their baby cries, instead they allow him/her to learn to fall back asleep independently. Rather than snacking all day like American children, French children eat three meals a day (not special “kid foods”) and only one afternoon snack each day at 4:00. Most astonishing to me is that Druckerman reports actually witnessing a three-year-old French girl help her mom make cupcakes and not lick her fingers once! Talk about un-American!
So how do those of us who did not grow up with French parents strengthen our self-control? Self-control acts like a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. The Monitor on Psychology reported that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires (i.e. ”Where are my chocolate chips?!”). We use self-control in other areas of our lives as well: controlling thoughts and emotions, making decisions, and pushing ourselves to do one more task before we go to bed. Unfortunately, self-control is definitely a limited resource; that is why by the end of the day, we are likely to relax our standards and say, “whatever!!”
We all have areas of our lives that we would like to have more control over. It helps to prioritize our focus on one particular area and as our behavioral habits adjust to a new normal, redirect our attention to our next priority. When possible (perhaps early in the day), we can attempt to anticipate temptations and challenges that may surface later in the day and pre-plan our responses. Such mindfulness requires willpower and self-control, but I think I can and think youcan too!
Live Well/ Be Well.
Here are a few stories I wrote with the “intention” of getting your “attention.”
Caroline has gained weight, and as a result, she feels lethargic, self-conscious, and uncomfortable in her clothes. She has dieted before, only to relapse. This time, however, she’s motivated to do the work necessary to look and feel her best and has committed to alleviating processed foods from her diet, with few exceptions. She knows that this, as well as a few other dietary changes, will foster confidence and energy to truly enjoy life with her friends and family.
Chris wants to do better in school. Under the weight of huge expectations and sub-par results, he has sought professional support to help him focus his attention and energy in a thoughtful and productive direction. He’s not sure whether law school is a realistic aspiration at this point, but knows he wants to strive for more than his current trajectory. He has taken the first step and is ready to do the work.
Cynthia has felt unfulfilled and out-of-sorts since her youngest child left for college in September. She recognizes that in order to be happy, she must re-create structure, meaning, and purpose in her life as she transitions to an empty nest. She has begun journaling each evening and networking with others who have successfully navigated these waters before.
This is the common but invisible thread that connects these three people: Each person has actually declared an intention, rather than wistfully wishing for things to be different.
“Conscious change is brought about by the two qualities inherent in consciousness: attention and intention,” (Deepak Chopra, Seven Spiritual Laws of Success) “Attention energizes, and intention transforms. Whatever you put your attention on will grow stronger in your life…. Intention, on the other hand, triggers transformation of energy and information. Intention organizes its own fulfillment.”
When you declare an intention, you focus attention and gain the support of your subconscious mind. Here are some suggestions for how to work with intentions in order to transform your life.
• What do you want?
Many of us know what we don’t want (the status quo, extra pounds, anxious feelings), but have no idea what we do want, much less why! The hours turn to days, days to weeks, and the status quo persists, unless we identify and create a new road, a different trajectory.
Ask yourself how your life will be if you do not change. Then imagine what your ideal life looks like. What is the difference? What is the smallest thing you could change that would make the biggest difference today?
• Imagine it happening.
“Your imagination creates the inner picture that allows you to participate in the act of creation.” (Dr. Wayne Dyer, The Power of Intention)
Imagine yourself 20 lbs. lighter, in a different career, or with a more structured workday. How would you feel? How might your life trajectory be different? How would your relationships benefit?
It is just as important to imagine potential obstacles as it is to imagine your personal transformation actually happening. By imagining triggers for undesirable behaviors, you can develop a plan to respond intentionally when temptation and challenges assert themselves.
• What are you already doing right?
Make a list of the healthy habits that will support you through this change process. These may include supportive relationships, proper nutrition, good sleep, and/or regular exercise. Don’t let new habits compromise these old ones.
• Get out of your head, and commit to specific action. Write down what you are going to do, then do it. Intention isn’t about sitting back and waiting for it all to come to you. “Hope” is not an action. Our intentions are realized through a series of small steps over time
Caroline committed to writing down everything that she ate for three days in order to highlight her habits; Chris has added a two-hour study block to his schedule each school day, guaranteeing 10 additional study hours per week; Cynthia began working with a coach to redirect her attention to opportunities for growth and contribution as she transitions into her next stage of life.
• Surrender control of what you cannot control. It’s harder than it sounds. When you let go and trust that you cannot control everything, you learn to funnel your attention to your personal growth and change process. Struggles exist but your intention provides focus, light, and purpose to your journey.
Be well/Live well.
Major life disruptions are a “gotcha” moment we all experience at one time or another in our lives. We get fired, laid off, or passed over; a loved one dies, becomes ill, leaves, or gets into trouble; a project stalls or gets cancelled. The list, unfortunately, is endless.
For some, the impact of these hard times is overwhelming and creates lasting problems. Others show incredible resilience and are admirably able to glide through challenging times fairly easily. Resilience—the ability to recover quickly from difficulties—acts as our internal compass which drives our growth and recovery.
When unexpected events turn life upside-down, it’s the degree to which our resiliency comes into play that makes these “make-or-break” situations an opportunity for growth. The good news is that each of us has the capacity to re-organize our life after a disruption and to achieve new levels of strength and meaningfulness. Though it’s easy to feel vulnerable in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, life disruptions often help us grow and meet future challenges in our lives with a perspective we had not previously been awakened to.
So, how can you become more resilient? Here’s a look at seven key characteristics of people who demonstrate resilience during life’s unpredictable trajectories.
Feeling hopeful / Having Faith
Hope is not an action, but it is a belief that things will get better. Faith and hope are empowering beliefs that support a positive attitude. This positive attitude allows people to weather difficult times and to look for and accept the support they require. Faith and hope reduce the production of energy-zapping cortisol (the stress hormone) and provide the vitality to fuel recovery.
Interpreting Experiences in a New Light
The ability to look at a situation in a new way (a skill called “reframing”) can minimize the impact of difficult situations. Resilient people are able to redirect their focus from feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to personal, intentional, and productive “take-a-ways.”
Meaningful System of Support
One of the best ways to endure a crisis is with the support of friends, family, and the community. Knowing that others care, have been through similar crises before, and will come to our aid, decreases the feeling of isolation that comes with tackling a problem alone. Resilient people aren’t stoic loners. They know the value of expressing their fears and frustrations, as well as receiving support, coaching, or guidance.
Sense of Mastery and Control Over Your Destiny
You may not be able to predict the future, but you can address a problem instead of submitting to the mercy of forces outside of your control. Resilient people know that their survival and the integrity of their life values ultimately depend on their ability to take action rather than remain passive. Tough times call for you to tap into your own sense of personal responsibility. Ask yourself, “Where should I direct my focus? What is called for now? What small change can make the biggest difference now? What are my options? Who will support me?”
Self-Reflection and Insight
Life’s experiences provide fertile ground for learning. Asking yourself questions that invite introspection (“How do I feel? How has my perspective changed? What do I want to take away from the situation?”) can open a door to new understanding and appreciation of who you are and what you stand for. Giving voice to your thoughts and feelings leads to insight and helps transform the meaning of a problem into something useful. Resilient people learn from life situations and do not succumb to punishing themselves because of decisions made in the past.
Wide Range of Interests
People who show resilience in the face of adversity are those who have a diversity of interests. They’re open to new experiences and ideas. Because their lives are rich and varied, it’s easier for them to find relief from the single-mindedness and worry that often accompany a crisis. They may focus on a hobby, return to school, or spend more time volunteering in the community, thus creating new lifestyle patterns.
Sense of Humor
Have you ever had a wry laugh during a difficult situation? The ability to see the absurdity, irony, or genuine humor in a situation stimulates our sense of hope and possibility. Humor has both psychological and physical benefits in relieving stress because it encourages a swift change in your perception of your circumstances—and when your thoughts change, your mood follows.
This article is lovingly dedicated to my clients whose resilience has inspired me daily, as well as my mom and two sisters, each of whom have shown great resilience in their personal battles with MS and breast cancer.
How many of us have heard these words or said them to ourselves? A wave of nervousness and anxiety rushes over you and you tell yourself- or worse yet, someone else tells you that you need to “calm down.” (Like that EVER actually works!) As counter-intuitive as it is, calming down or chillin’ out may not always be the most effective antidote for anxiety and nerves.
I am a passionate advocate of practicing yoga and am trained in the Relaxation Response technique, both of which are amazing tools to foster inner peace and clarity. However, I recently read about a Harvard Business School study which found that when people felt anxious prior to undertaking a challenge (public specking, singing karaoke, taking an exam, etc.), they performed better when they told themselves to “get excited” rather than to “calm down.” It has long been known that anxiety and excitement illicit the same physical response in the body – increased cortisol (the “stress” hormone), adrenaline, and heart rate. The research has uncovered that we can use our physical response to our advantage by simply telling ourselves, .”I am excited! Let’s go!
I have often coached myself and my clients to approach a stressful situation with calm confidence. It seems to me that by taking a moment to pause and enjoy a few calming breaths, we may create the space and clarity to reframe anxiety and nerves into excitement and action.
Live Well/Be Well.
“Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.” ~ Rumi.
This quote hits home on every imaginable level for many of us, myself included. May is notorious for being a month of moves, graduations, travel, new jobs, etc. We often experience myriad emotions ranging from reticence to excitement, and joy to sadness. In an effort to find calm in the chaos, we hold on! We hold on to anything from undesirable habits, comfortable relationships, or our favorite pair of jeans. We hold on to thoughts cemented during our high school years or parental guilt. We may find ourselves unwilling to let go of unmet expectations, a full household, or perhaps the happiest time in our lives (so far).
Consider that as we eat and drink, our body extracts important nutrients and vitamins in our food in order to fuel our body, mind, and spirit; at the same time, it works to eliminate waste and redundancy (Too much protein, gotta get rid of that. Too much fat, where can I store it?) If the body doesn’t eliminate its surpluses, they accumulate, wreak havoc, and are stored as fat. As long as we don’t join a hunger strike or the cast of Naked and Afraid, the extra fat does nothing more than encumber our movement and deplete our energy. In much the same way, our body reacts to extraneous thoughts, habits, relationships, and personal belongings that flood us and stifle our growth.
On a daily basis, but particularly in times of transition, we must consider what is adding “fat” to our lives and what is vital, supporting our very existence. This week, I have continuously asked myself those questions as I returned from a brief visit in LA with my 23-year old son and began to pack and move from the home where we raised our family. What am I taking with me physically, mentally, and emotionally? What will support my personal growth, as well as that of my family, clients, and community? What is best left behind? These are both figurative and literal questions. To just name a few, I’m leaving: my “mother of young children” designation, holes in the walls, empty bulletin boards, the piano that awakened us each morning, the fireplace at which prom photos were taken and holiday gifts exchanged, the butcher block at which every garlic pod was crushed and ice cream pie created, and the kitchen table where time stood still for just a bit. I’m leaving behind, “he said, she said,” 3:00 a.m. homework panic, carpool traffic, and impromptu parties. Yet, the most challenging part is leaving behind a time when my hug and some fresh baked brownies were enough to change the day, my presence in bed during a thunderstorm brought slumber, and a bedtime story, followed by “stargazing” at the painted ceiling, brought conversation and connection. We let go to create space and energy to hold on! This new space allows me to dust off memories, reframe photos, uncover handwritten cards, cherish engaging conversations with my husband and grown children, enjoy more “date nights”, nurture relationships with treasured friends and clients, and cherish family time (whenever we can get it)! Most importantly, this space allows me to continue to share hope, peace, support, and above all else, love.
Note: I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing Rumi’s original quote: Life is a balance of holding on to that which nourishes and supports our physical, mental, and spiritual growth while letting go of that which encumbers our thoughts, energy, and potential.
Live Well/Be Well.
“Calm down!” It’s ironic how these two words so often elicit an opposite and emotional reaction! Our society is fraught with anxiety, relying on medication and meditation as common antidotes. As a facilitator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, I am a passionate proponent of conquering anxiety through awareness and breath. The Case Against Staying Calm by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D, recently published in Psychology Today, caught my attention. In her article, Drexler examines the possibility that when anxiety is embraced and reframed as excitement, negative emotions can actually be transformed into positive emotions.
A recent study by Harvard Medical School found that staying calm is not necessarily desirable. In their study of over 400 participants, researchers found that when faced with a challenging or difficult situation, people are better able to perform if they tell themselves to “get excited,” rather than to “calm down.” This reality is likely the result of our bodies’ propensity to excrete cortisol and adrenaline in response to stress. Instead of fighting these inevitable physical responses, perhaps we should embrace and merely “redefine” them. “I am not stressed over this test; I am excited to take it and nail it!” “ I am not nervous about my work presentation; I am excited for the opportunity to share my knowledge and experience.” “I am not anxious to confront my child about the party Saturday night; I am excited for the opportunity to engage in an informative conversation about the ramifications of underage drinking.”
While this research study is new to me, I realize that I have often coached clients to go into a test or job interview with an exciting “game day” mindset. However, I thoroughly believe that for excitement to be manageable and positive, it must be accompanied by calm confidence, accessed through mindfulness. On the cusp of your next challenge, when your heart starts pumping quickly and your hands feel sweaty, take a slow calm breath, recognize and embrace your “excitement,” before proceeding confidently in the direction of your desired outcome.
Live well/ Be well
Many of you who know me well are familiar with my recent fascination with the human brain. My interest was sparked a couple of years ago while attending several continuing education classes that were designed and facilitated by Harvard Medical School neurologists. Their research and knowledge was so compelling that I fantasized (for a split second) about applying to medical school. As I more closely familiarized myself with the neurological information presented, I learned that the human brain’s performance peaks at 35 years of age. I clearly missed that opportunity. Truthfully, even at full throttle I doubt that I was ever up to the task, not to mention my tendency to pass out at the first sight of blood in emergency rooms with my children. However, understanding my personal limitations has not squelched my interest; in fact, it has enticed me to learn and share more.
Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to change throughout a person’s life, reorganizing itself by forming new connections between neurons. As we learn a new skill or adopt a new habit, our brain responds. Dr. Pascale Michelson, Brain Plasticity: How Learning Changes Your Brain, cites plasticity observed in the brains of bilinguals, musicians, and even medical students as they study for their exams. Neuroplasticity happens at the infancy of life, throughout adulthood when something new is learned, and after brain injury to compensate for damaged areas.
By reviewing and reflecting this information to you, I am making and strengthening neuro-connections while creating new neurons. (neurogenesis) What happens to these new connections and neurons is up to me. Our brains reward us with new neurons and pathways when we stretch, learn, and grow; when we dig deeper and commit more, those pathways commit as well. Similarly, under-utilized neurons will be disposed of by a process called synaptic pruning. When several of my friends and I were complaining about a potentially challenging (boring?) new book club selection, one of my dear friends reminded us of our unwritten club’s mission statement: “We will continue to learn and stretch our brains.” Neuroplasticity is a choice and a challenge!
Live Well/Be Well.
I feel such relief when I clear my desk and discard or file stacks of paid bills. Some bills, such as my monthly NY Times subscription, require little attention because they remain constant month-to-month. They are immediately paid and shredded – joy! Other invoices, while recurring, can vary greatly and must be closely monitored. My routine is to categorize these invoices before filing them away for future reference. After several months, or even years, I may refer to these files to obtain a clear picture of my spending patterns. How much did I spend on electricity this year? How about groceries? Looks like I spent too much on coffee! By recognizing my spending patterns, I am able to evaluate and intentionally decide how I wish to spend my money. Once I am aware, I am free to empty the folders and shred these documents, as well! I LOVE the shredder!
Our thoughts work much as our expenses. Brain space and money are both finite commodities and must be monitored and used with discretion. Our benign thoughts, “It’s cold outside.” or “It will soon be Christmas.” arrive in a flash and are quickly dismissed; however more complex thoughts can accumulate into a heavy load if not appropriately recognized and addressed. Micki Fine, author of The Need to Please, suggests that by labeling our thoughts, we are able to identify and categorize destructive thought patterns. “I can’t believe I ate that!” or “I messed up again!” go into the “Self-Loathing” folder. “I hope he likes me!” or “I have to do what she wants!” goes into the “Approval-Seeking” thoughts folder. Labeling our thoughts allows us to identify, define, and ultimately create distance from them. These labels serve to identify habitual negative thought patterns, thus empowering us to change them. By noticing that our “Approval-Seeking” thoughts folder is overstuffed and taking up too much brain space, we are free to shred its contents!
Our brain space is limited, not unlike our financial resources – We can’t afford to waste either! Label, file, learn, and ultimately shred! It ‘s so freeing!
Live Well/Be Well.
After years spent working and dreaming, months of testing, applying, stressing, and anticipating, it is finally time to begin your college career. While your first semester has just begun, you have likely already experienced an avalanche of feelings: excitement, apprehension, joy, melancholy, eagerness, and fear. Let me assure you, these emotions are normal and expected as you embark on this major life transition.
During the last several months, many of you have shared that your greatest fear is failure and I have been quick to point out that there is no need to fear failure; you WILL fail…and you will be just fine. That’s right, you will fail at something. You may fail to turn a paper in on time, you may fail a quiz or test, you may have a failed relationship, or a job that doesn’t work out. It may take you a while to “find your place” or you may feel like a failure if you don’t immediately have someone to sit with at lunch. Yes, failure is the only certainly as you approach this or any challenge.
When we accept that we will fail, we no longer judge ourselves by our failures. Instead, as we navigate over, under, and around the new challenges that failure present, we learn to appreciate our personal resiliency and perseverance, uncover our personal strengths, and celebrate our growth.
Throughout our lives, we have each heard stories of people who have inspired us. These stories are rarely, if ever, stories of a direct assent to success. The stories that inspire us most are stories of people who have had trials, tribulations, and challenges to overcome. Most report having moments when they had to ask themselves, “How badly do I want this?” You too, will have those moments. Successful people often look back at a few pivotal moments in their lives when they could have given up or taken the easy way, and they chose to press on – to find a way.
During your college career, you will certainly experience times that you feel overwhelmed, scared, intimidated or just plain lazy and will have to ask yourself, “how badly do I want this?” What will it mean to earn a college education? How will my life be different five, ten, fifteen years down the road? What impact will my post-secondary education have on me, my family, and/or my community? What will it feel like to walk the length of the stage at my university and accept, what for many will be, the first college diploma in my family?
When faced with failure, disappointment, or great challenge the best advice I can give you is to STOP. Don’t STOP and give up! STOP is an acronym:
T: Take a Breath.
O: Observe (How do I feel? Angry? Frustrated? Scared? Lonely? Stupid?) Observe your thoughts without judgment as they are only thoughts – they are not facts. Let them go.
P: Proceed mindfully. (What is important to me now? How do I want to proceed now?)
Remaining calm and confident through life’s turbulence will allow you to reasonably evaluate a situation, decide on a course of action, and move on purposefully and confidently. Now is the time to trust yourself, your preparation, and your resiliency. While there will most certainly be bumps in the road, disappointments, uncertain moments, and yes, failure – you are ready! You have been through difficult times before and prevailed – you will again!
When you find yourself feeling a bit anxious, take comfort that your feelings are a sign that you are about to embark on something new and exciting! It is only by stepping outside our comfort zones that we fail, flourish, and grow.
Live well/Be well
“Pay Attention!” How many times have we heard that? We’ve heard it from our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and spouses. “Pay attention!” has been screamed at us from passing cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. We have each uttered, said, or screamed those words countless times to our children and them to us. Just reading the words, “pay attention!” is stressful, unless “pay attention” is in the context of mindfulness.
Even those unfamiliar with the art and benefits of mindfulness can choose to make mindful decisions each day. Sitting in traffic, we can choose to pay attention to our companion in the car or the music on the radio, instead of the frustrating congestion. While in a class or a meeting, we can choose to focus on what is being shared instead of letting our thoughts wander to our next obligation or where we are having lunch that day. When a stranger holds a door or provides a service, we can choose to look him/her in the eye and genuinely express gratitude to him/her versus muffling a quick obligatory “thanks.” We can choose to eat dessert slowly and enjoy every bite rather than consuming it as quickly as possible in an attempt to “eat the guilt” along with the treat.
We all zone out sometimes – some of us more than others. Countless times I’ve arrived at a destination with little idea of how I got there or where I parked. I’ve looked right past and not seen someone I know as I rushed around town with a dozen thoughts monopolizing my head. I’ve eaten a handful of chocolate chips and not truly tasted a single one. If I’m going to eat my yummy chocolate, I should at least pay attention to it and enjoy!
While the concept of mindfulness can be overwhelming, it can easily be practiced at any given moment by just reminding ourselves to “pay attention.” The present is where life unfolds and it deserves ALL of you!
Live well/Be well.