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Baby Steps Getting It Done

Baby StepsI’m an impatient person. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a “why the bloody hell hasn’t it happened, yet?” That’s the problem when I start to see five steps ahead. I want to skip the first four steps and get right to the end point. And yet, I know that totally ignores opportunities for personal growth and the learning that comes with the sometimes long and tedious journey.

Now, let’s add that I am a recovering perfectionist, which means that I want to make the colossal jump to step five with brilliant strategy, ideal focus, and flawless execution. Kind of like hitting a Dangerfield-esque Triple Lindy with no practice.

Put those things together and you have someone like me who wants to do so much so fast so perfectly that I get overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all and have trouble deciding on the next step. Hello, analysis paralysis.

This tendency (or neurosis if you choose) surfaced at work a few months ago during a planning session with my director. After a few minutes of generating ideas, I was already moving along to what it would take to initiate all the step fives of the master plan for digital fundraising domination. Who has time to wait for colleagues to come on board and help? Who wants to wait for the technology design to be created in order for there to be a shot at success? Who needs to adhere to an organizational strategic plan? Who can…wait, there sure are a lot of things needing to happen…um, which way should we go…oh god it’s just too much I think I’ll just sit over here and stew on this for a while.

Yeah.

It was at this point that my director asked if I ever saw the movie What About Bob? with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus. “Well, no,” was my sheepish reply. How could I have not seen this movie? It stars Bill Murray and was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake, near where my wife grew up (and little known fact: she kinda-sorta knows the real-life folks that owned the lake house in the movie). “Then,” she proceeded, “I’m going to introduce you to the idea of baby steps. Baby step to the elevator. Baby step to your desk. Baby step to doing just the first task we talked about. We’ll only get to digital fundraising dominance if we do it with baby steps. And if ever in doubt, refer to the movie.” See, in the movie, Bob is wracked by anxiety and overwhelmed by everything around him. Dr. Marvin’s concept of Baby Steps helps Bob focus on setting small, reasonable goals in order to escape his paralyzing sense of overwhelm.

That photo of Bob above with Baby Steps now is pinned to the wall directly above my laptop at work. It’s also formed a bit of short hand where if I jump too far ahead of plan, the words “baby steps” are merely uttered and I know to pull back. It’s now so ingrained that I toss them back on my director when she’s in danger of leaping forward too quickly.

Does any of this feel familiar to you? I know I’m not the only one who could use a reminder to practice a little more patience and focus on that next small step to get where we really want to go. So next time you experience overwhelm, remember…baby steps.

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The Harmful and Ridiculous Lie of “Mentally Strong People”

Take What You NeedLast year, when I was in the hellish gutter of one of the worst depression and anxiety episodes of my life, I kept seeing articles pop up in my Facebook feed talking about “mentally strong people” and the actions they take every day. At the time I felt anything but mentally strong. I was just trying to get through each day, moment by moment, without completely losing my shit. Some days I managed to hold it together; others, I was in one of the office bathroom stalls quietly praying to just not exist. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want the continued pain of being. And then my internal critic would angrily ask why I was so mentally weak because mentally strong people – according to these various articles – don’t hang out on the toilet and contemplate the option of nonexistence. They’d be out there, kicking ass, making all the right moves, being generally awesome.

And that’s the insidiously subtle message of these articles: that if you’re not mentally strong…well, you must be the opposite. And when you’re struggling in a state of depression and anxiety, what other possible explanation could there be?

Yet, I persevered. I suffered, but I persevered and somehow came out on the other side to where I am today. And today is joyful and hopeful and meaningful. Does that perseverance make me mentally strong? Who knows but every time I read these articles and blogposts about mentally strong people, I don’t relate one bit.

This week, I saw another article about “mentally strong people” and felt angry because I wager there are people out there just trying to keep their shit together and don’t need any more of these types of messages. (Here’s my Facebook rant if you’re curious about the genesis of this blogpost.) If you care to see what I’m talking about just do a Google search for “mentally strong people” and you get plenty of these types of articles:

  • 10 Toxic Relationships Mentally Strong People Avoid
  • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do
  • The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People
  • 12 Common Lies Mentally Strong People Don’t Believe
  • The 13 Tough Habits Of Mentally Strong People

Now that I’m in a more healthy mental and emotional place in my life, I see this tripe for what it is: at best, lies masquerading as someone else’s vain attempt to claim toughness and superiority; at worst, linkbait for those who are worried they’re just not measuring up to some impossible standard of success. The more I think about it, it’s probably both.

Turns out I’m not alone. As I was doing the Google search referenced above, I came across this similar critique from Denise K. Shull in Psychology Today:

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can’t help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn’t a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect’s superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like “don’t give up” but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of “bad” over a challenging economic situation. What’s the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can’t always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate – or in other words, weaker.

Want to know how to be mentally strong? I honestly have no idea. And if someone claims they do, they’re sizing you up as a sucker. But here’s what I can say from my experience of wandering the mental and emotional wastelands. All we can do is live each day the best we can. Appreciate that we’re going to have joyful experiences and terrible ones. Find ways to see ourselves for the goodness and gift that we are. Perhaps, to be mentally strong is to simply love. That’s all. Isn’t that enough?

Photo credit: Jason Rosenberg

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10 Things I Learned In 2013: The Year Of The Existential Speedbump

It’s taken me the better part of a month to assess the past year and take in the learning. I re-read my 2012 review post and I’m rather unnerved by how it’s eerily similar to my initial thoughts on 2013: the importance of love, courage, and vulnerability.

Well, no sense beating around the bush: last year sucked. There really is no other way of putting it. For the better part of 2013, I was a nervous, anxious wreck. I was frequently visited by a sense of fear – almost bordering terror – that clouded my sense of self-worth. I was mired in a depression that was horrific in its depth. All of which led to some bad career decisions (and subsequent professional ass kickings) from which I’m still working to recover.

Yet, I am incredibly thankful for my experiences from 2013. Every single one of them. The few highs and the many lows served as a kind of existential speedbump that helped me to slow down and reassess my life, my choices, my expectations, my faith, my purpose.

Here are 10 things I learned (or at least learned how to appreciate) in 2013:

1. Take care for my health – both physical and mental. Recognizing my own long-time struggle with depression and anxiety has helped me to be a more compassionate advocate for all mental health issues. I’m starting to find the courage to be a voice for mental health and want to ease the stigma our society still has around mental illnesses.

2. Stop trying to have all the answers and start asking more interesting questions. I’ll always struggle with this. I found an early identity in school as The Kid Who Knew The Right Answers. That’s a shitty identity to assume, particularly when you get older and have to contend with the reality that there are often no right answers in life. I’m learning how to ask more questions and being comfortable with uncertainty.

3. Stop comparing myself to others and letting my Inner Critic beat me up with his horseshit. My Inner Critic looooves playing the social comparison game. He’s the LeBron James of his grotesque sport. And as I approach 40 years old, he relishes each opportunity to remind me that my life isn’t what it should be when so many other 30somethings have already achieved personal and professional greatness. Well, it’s all a load of steaming horseshit. It assumes there’s only one way to live a purposeful life. Some of us just take longer to figure out what that means.

4. Stop chasing. Did I ever chase the wrong rabbits this year. I chased money in a high-demand profession and for a company that was such a poor fit for me, my talents, my passions. And I not only did it once…I did it twice in one year. Why? See #3 above.

But if I can pull some positives away from these two experiences: both were my attempts to do things I had never really done before (business analysis and product marketing). So I can continue to take pride in my ability to take risks even when those risks don’t pan out (much like unsuccessfully starting businesses in 2012).

5. Stop settling. Settling is a Siren’s song. Sure, accepting a paycheck in exchange for doing work that doesn’t fulfill us sounds like a decent compromise, but the cost can be our soul getting smashed on the rocks. For me, I’ve discovered that I would rather live frugally and do work that improves the world than settle for a bigger salary that ties me to work that doesn’t matter. Does that sound idealistic? Fine by me.

6. Quitting a bad situation is sometimes better than sticking it out. No one likes a quitter, but there’s a certain idiotic futility that comes from not leaving a bad job situation. See #5 above. Life is far too short to do work that provokes panic attacks, causes us to doubt our competence, or simply isn’t bringing out our best self.

7. Failing is not an end but a beginning. As a recovering perfectionist, failing has never been easy for me to accept. Actually, that’s not true – if I fail, I’m more than happy to accept the blame. However, I’m trying to practice a different way of thinking. Failings are just data suggesting we make course corrections. They’re learning experiences. They’re guides toward better ways of working and living.

8. I am responsible for my own happiness. I can’t pawn this off on anyone else. If I want to live a happy, fulfilled life then I need to own it. It’s not going to come from wishing for better life situations (better job, nicer house, badass truck, etc.). That whole “I’ll be happy when…” internal dialogue is full of lies that keep us from embracing the changes we need to make in our thoughts and actions.

9. Self-compassion means accepting my weird quirks, embarrassing flaws, and contradictory thoughts. Self-compassion is one of the greatest gifts we can give our selves. It’s also one of the most difficult gifts to give. It means accepting and boldly claiming our own oddness and eccentricities. It means acknowledging that there are some folks that are just not going to get who we really are. It means being cool with our own innate contradictions because life is messy and non linear.

10. Don’t give up on finding my soulful work. Finally, never give up on the idea that our work can be meaningful and inspiring. For me, it’s coming to a place where I am choosing to go back to the work of the nonprofit sector. I left it several years ago largely for reasons outlined in #4 above. Since then, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience, skills, and insights in the for-profit world. I’m excited to bring my ideas, passion, and commitment to achieving great things to nonprofits that share a mission to create a positive impact in the world.

My sincerest hope is that at the end of 2014, I’ll look back on this post and remark on how it was a year of success, of growth, of courage and love and self-acceptance. And may it also be your greatest year, as well.

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Reclaiming My Purpose…Oh, And Depression Sucks

Starry Night SkyIf we want different answers in our life, we need to learn how to ask different questions.

I’ve been playing with variations of this idea for the last month. Much has happened to me in 2013. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that much as happened in me in 2013. Far too much for me to describe in a single blog post, but perhaps over time I’ll be able to write more about my journey this past year. However, let me try and take a stab at it.

Though I have shared some things through my social networks at various times, I haven’t written much here in this blog. The very idea of opening myself up to the world through this site was terrifying. I was battling a crippling combination of depression and anxiety that left me wanting to simply get small and hide from the darkness that was both out there and within me. I did my very best to hide this darkness and fear from friends, family, and the world. Sometimes I succeeded. Often times I failed. All along the way, I kept asking, “Why?” Why is everything such a damned struggle? Why am I scared to do the important things I know I need to do? Why can’t I feel a sense of hope anymore? Why does my life seem without purpose?

That’s the terrible thing about depression. In hindsight, I see it clearly but when you’re neck deep in the muck and shit, you don’t see with the same eyes, hear with the same ears, and think with the same mind. It’s a rather horrific and lonely place.

What I needed was a way out, a way to wake up, and God presented me with just such an opportunity. But it wasn’t a nice, soothing wake up call that gently roused me from my slumber. It was the equivalent of a foghorn placed directly at the side of my head. Jarring and painful, but now wide awake to the fact that I was not caring for my mental health. Furthermore, I was definitely not living the Life I was meant to live and doing the Work I was meant to do.

Now, my question focused on, “Okay God, what are You trying to show me?” Different questions can yield different answers.

In the past 30 days, I have gotten the help I needed in the form of therapy and medication. I have discovered I am a part of loving, wonderful, supportive Church community. I have received tremendous comfort and caring among my dear friends and family. I know just how much I love and admire my wife for courageously helping me through it all. I have regained a sense of joy and curiosity that was lost for far too long.

And I’ve also been freed to ask new questions about the direction of my Life and Work. The answers are still a bit murky but clarity is beginning to take place. After all that I’ve been through this year, what I do know is that my Life has value and my Work must have meaningful purpose (more about this soon). I see my course is forward and my very best is yet to come.

I share all of this partly as therapy for myself, but also as words of solace to any of you who are struggling right now with your own demons of depression and anxiety. You are not alone. Your Life has value. Your Work can be a brilliant light in this world. Reach out for the help you need…and don’t give up until you get it.

Be well, my friends.

Love, Chris.

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We’re All In-between Swims

This one’s subtitled: An essay on learning (and trying not to drown).

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to experience the excitement and anxiety of learning something new – the art of whitewater kayaking. Ever since my first rafting trip as a teenager, I knew I wanted to paddle my own boat. The kayakers looked like they were enjoying the river in ways that we on the large raft were unable. I told my buddy next to me that someday I wanted to do that. Someday. So, a few years ago, I decided to stop letting life get in the way of something I yearned to do. I signed up with a local kayaking school and set out to pursue a goal that I had put aside for too long.

However, the first course did not go quite the way I envisioned. I naïvely thought kayaking would be much easier than it actually was and that I would pick up the instruction much faster that I actually did. In reality, I felt awkward in the unstable boat and unnerved by my inability to master something that on dry land looked so easy.

Yet I walked away from that experience with three powerful lessons that offered insights into my own sense of learning and living.

Lesson #1: Just because you’ve been on a river before does not mean you already know what you’re doing. I’ve been rafting before in whitewater and even done some flatwater kayaking and I thought those experiences would give me an edge in quickly learning how to paddle a kayak. One mistake I made was that I didn’t approach this new experience from a place of “not knowing,” but instead tried to filter it through past experiences that may have gotten in the way of actually learning. Recognize each experience, regardless of how familiar it may be to you, as an opportunity to learn something new.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to do something new because you might look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Guess what? More than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing! This means you might notice some uncomfortable feelings like incompetence and helplessness. About half-way through the lesson, I committed a typical newbie mistake of panicking when I accidentally capsized my kayak. Trapped underwater in my kayak, I thrashed and flailed trying to get my boat upright. Two instructors came to try to rescue me before I remembered that I could rescue myself by ejecting from the boat. When I surfaced and caught my breath, I realized that my classmates had witnessed the whole episode with a mixture of fear and thankfulness that it wasn’t them. Yet regardless of how I must have looked, I learned very quickly how to remain calm while underwater and how to get myself out of a capsized kayak. Remember that embarrassment only lasts for a few minutes, while the lessons you gain through trying something new last much longer.

Lesson #3: We’re all in-between swims. After I managed to get back in my kayak, one of the instructors said, “Even the best paddlers get themselves into jams. Dude, we’re all in-between swims.” As I rejoined my fellow kayakers, the full force of that statement hit me. Individuals who choose to fully experience life inevitably encounter challenging situations that are bigger than themselves. Sometimes we can paddle through the situation and sometimes we have to eject. It’s about not letting our fears get in the way of fully learning and living. Be open to not getting it right all the time and understand that failing can often lead to the greatest learnings of all.

So, are you taking tentative action in order to always remain upright in your boat or are you pushing yourself and allowing for the possibility of tipping over? The first option is one of safety, the second is risky, but one of true growth. If you’re playing it safe now because you’re afraid of capsizing, ask what it’s costing you. Maybe it’s a life of significance, meaning, and fun. Start paddling in your life and see where it takes you.

photo credit: davichi (via Flickr)

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