What kinds of things does your Inner Critic say to you? If it's anything like mine, it's probably stuff like, ”You're such an idiot. I can't believe you said that!” And, “You're not smart enough. Don't apply for that job. Don't even bother.” If you can relate, learning how to name your Inner Critic is the psychological tool you need to keep that voice in your head from sabotaging your life. It might sound silly, but even a super serious psychologist like me had to use this tool and give my own Inner Critic a name.
If you’ve read my blog about silencing your Inner Critic (or watched the video), you know why we have an Inner Critic in the first place. As a reminder, it developed as a way to keep us safe from threats, including getting kicked out of our tribe. But if your Inner Critic is anything like mine, she's developed a mind of her own and can be pretty damaging when left unchecked. When working to quiet your Inner Critic, you must know this: your Inner Critic is not you! This may be hard to believe because the voice is coming from inside you, right? You hear it in your own head! But, the voice is likely made up of a host of different people and sources. If you listen closely, you might hear your Inner Critic repeating the same things your parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, religious leaders and other caregivers said to you growing up. You might hear messages that came from your friends at school or the culture you grew up in. You might even hear messages that came from TV or magazines. For many women, for example, our Inner Critic tells us we need to be skinnier. That's the direct result of our culture’s unhealthy obsession with a Western, European thin ideal. We get bombarded with this message in TV and magazines from a very young age.
The second point worth noting is that when left unchecked, our Inner Critic can cause us harm. We all have an inner voice, and it can be quite helpful in certain situations. But, when the voice is highly critical and hard to shake, it keeps you from taking chances and putting yourself out there in ways that could be good for you. When your Inner Critic is left unchecked, you are more likely to develop depression and anxiety, feel lonely and disconnected, and experience regret and shame.
So, how do we keep that voice in check? I'm going to share four ideas:
Just what exactly do I mean by giving your Inner Critic a name? First, let's talk about a concept in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, for short) called defusion. Defusing from our thoughts helps us get distance, so that we don't automatically buy into those thoughts. Defusion gives us the space to look at our thoughts, instead of just saying, “I thought it so it must be true.” Getting this distance removes the authority from the thought. Here’s the thing: We have thousands of thoughts a day, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that not all of my thoughts are to be trusted! Many of the thoughts that my Inner Critic tells me are things that need to be questioned, because they developed from unrealistic standards and societal expectations that don't line up with my values. Sometimes they are things that my early caregivers said to me and they believe to be true, but I don't agree with. Thoughts like, “My body shape needs to be different” or “I'm not smart enough to try that.” Thoughts that say because I'm a woman, I should do certain things and I shouldn't do other things.
One of the most helpful ways I've found to defuse from my Inner Critic is by giving her a name. Sometimes people come up with a name that sounds like a silly villain or another character that's hard to take seriously. I've worked with clients who have given their Inner Critic the name of their own critical caregiver, once they figured out that most of the criticism they hear are the messages that they got from that caregiver. I wanted to give my Inner Critic a name that was so different from anything I hear on a regular basis that it would almost be jarring. So, I named my Inner Critic Gertrude. Over the years, I've come to imagine Gertrude as my old, German aunt who everyone knows is very critical and no one takes seriously. You know what I'm talking about, we all have that person in our lives! Deep down, they want the best for us, but they’re carrying their own emotional baggage that makes it difficult for them to be the caring, validating, supportive person we wish they could be.
If you think of your own Inner Critic the way I think of Gertrude, it's much easier to acknowledge that voice with curiosity instead of shame. Some questions to consider: How credible is this Inner Critic? Where is she getting her information from? Is she telling the whole story? Is she leaving out important details? Is she placing all the blame on you? If so, consider the thought as something worth exploring, without automatically buying into it completely. Maybe there is something in the criticism that has some credibility, but decide that you are really going to do your research before you buy into that story 100%. Collect more data before you decide which parts of the story are helpful to believe. This is how to look at what your Inner Critic is saying with curiosity instead of shame.
What about thanking your Inner Critic and moving on? When you start interacting with your Inner Critic in this more defused way, you can maintain more objectivity, rather than being eaten up with shame. You won't get so hung up on self-critical thoughts. You can remember that your Inner Critic developed as a way to protect you from potential threats and to keep you from taking risks that might hurt you. When you look at your Inner Critic in this more compassionate way, you are able to say, “Thanks for the feedback!” and just move on. You shift away from ruminating on the judgmental, critical thought and feeling awful about yourself because you believe it. Instead, you can refocus your attention on the things that bring you real value. Oftentimes, we disconnect from our values and avoid activities that bring us joy because our Inner Critic told you us we are “too stupid” or “too out of shape” to try them. Looking back on my life, I recognize the times when I didn’t dance at weddings or do physical activities with friends because of my own Inner Critic. What is your Inner Critic keeping you from enjoying?
The last idea I want to share is from Dr. Rick Hanson's TED article. Dr. Hanson encourages people to reflect each day, identifying one thing they are proud of (or at the very least, feel neutral about). I love this idea because it is supported by the research on gratitude. He explains that, in the same way an Inner Critic develops from critical messaging from critical caregivers, we can develop an Inner Nurturer by getting feedback from people who care about us and give us supportive, nurturing messages. This Inner Nurturer balances out the critical story your Inner Critic keeps telling you. When your Inner Critic tries holding you prisoner and keeping you from putting yourself out there and trying new things, your Inner Nurturer will encourage you to take a leap and go for it!
We all have an Inner Critic. It just comes with this human brain that we were given. But, if you notice that your Inner Critic is sabotaging your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self esteem, consider talking to a mental health professional like a Psychologist, a masters level therapist, or someone else you trust. And, if perfectionism is a problem for you, check out my free guide with seven daily habits you can use to manage perfectionism and keep it from sabotaging your life.
Just why did the world go on a bread baking craze when the pandemic started? Why couldn't you find a set of gym weights at any store to save your life? And why did we take on 100 different home projects? Because mastery feels good!
So, what is mastery? Do you need to become a stay at home gym rat or a banana bread aficionado to achieve it? Breaking down mastery will help you figure out how you can reach it to feel happier, healthier and more in control when everything is out of control.
From baking bread to gardening to exercise to crocheting, many of us looked for ways to cope at the beginning of the pandemic. What is it about challenging but doable activities that make us feel more in control? Mastering activities leads to feeling competent, confident and capable. These traits make us feel more in control.
When we’re kids, there are ample opportunities to master things, because everything is new. Additionally, we don't feel shame about being judged for failing. We fall and we are encouraged to get back up! Unfortunately, as we get older, novel opportunities become more and more rare. Societal judgement makes us less likely to put ourselves out there and try something we might not be naturally good at. But, mastery is really good for us.
Mastering an activity takes intense focus. In the field of positive psychology, mastery is referred to as “flow state;” you see this in athletes and other kinds of creatives who throw themselves into their art and report losing track of time. Self-confidence builds as we reflect on the progress we are making over time. When we can connect our results to the work we put in, we recognized that we are determining the outcome. This runs counter to most things in our lives, where we have little control. Mastery makes us feel more in control.
When it comes to mastery, you need to find a sweet spot. The activity you choose should be challenging but doable. You want to get a sense of accomplishment, rather than feeling like a total failure because the activity was too difficult to achieve on the first try. If you don't run, setting the goal to run a 5k straight out of the gate is not likely to build mastery. Choosing to run a quarter mile, on the other hand, is going to be very hard but likely possible. Start small, but not too small that it wasn't challenging enough.
When it comes to mastery, there has to be room for growth. Mastery loses its effect when it becomes too easy. While an easier activity may be relaxing and gratifying in its own ways, if it loses its difficulty it won't build mastery. This runs counterintuitive to everything our culture teaches where the ultimate goal is comfort. Many experts can do their job on autopilot with their eyes closed, but this is not mastery. Mastery requires a continuous challenge to reap the benefits. This means you have to do it consistently while building on the difficulty level so that you continue getting a sense of accomplishment.
Here’s an example: when I started spending time in nature, the idea of staying anywhere outdoors overnight was really intimidating. So, I just started with day hiking. I learned how to pack everything I needed in my backpack, carrying it out for the day and returning home the same day. After a while, that became really easy, so I started car camping. This was more challenging because I had to consider the items I would need overnight. When car camping became less challenging and more comfortable, I decided to try my hand at back country camping, where you carry everything you need for the trip and hike to a more primitive campsite, away from your vehicle. The first time I tried back country camping, I hiked out seven miles. Now this was a challenge for me! I built mastery each time, finding new ways to add difficulty so I didn’t lose my sense of accomplishment. However, I couldn’t have successfully completed a back country hike right out of the gate; I didn’t have enough experience. I had to start small with day hiking to get to this point of mastery.
But, what are the benefits of mastery anyway? Why do it when it’s not easy? Mastery pulls from two highly effective treatments for depression: behavioral activation and cognitive therapy. When I work with folks who are depressed, we make specific plans for them to do activities that make them feel competent. For really depressed clients, this might mean making the bed or showering. Mastery is not about the difficulty of the task in general, but how difficult it is for you right now, depending on your circumstances and context. This is really important; do not beat yourself up if you have to start very small. When we complete a difficult task, the story we have about ourselves starts to change. “I can't do hard things” shift to “I can do hard things” as the evidence builds and starts to support this new narrative. Research shows that practicing mastery leads to a higher quality of life, greater levels of happiness, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image. Plus, it's been shown to decrease depression.
If you are a perfectionist, here are two potential problems to look out for. First, you will likely choose something that is too hard out of the gate. Perfectionist usually set unrealistic standards for themselves. And, this leads them to procrastinate, because they are planning for something that's too difficult and overwhelming to do. In this case, not only does a perfectionist not build mastery, but they also feel shame about the procrastination. If you are a perfectionist, give yourself permission to start small! Because perfectionistic brains believe in perfection over progress, perfectionists also fall into the trap of judging themselves negatively for not doing enough when they complete the activity. If you are a perfectionist, you may have thoughts like, “I should’ve done something harder, something more challenging.” This happened to me recently. I went on a hike and, while it was really challenging, it was a shorter distance than I’ve hiked in the past. I noticed my inner critic started to say, “You could’ve hiked further, you could have hiked longer. This wasn't long enough to feel good about.” I had to catch my inner critic quickly and shift the story I was telling myself. I challenged my inner critic by saying, “There are many ways to measure difficulty and distance is just one of them. The elevation changes and terrain made this hike challenging and I’m proud of myself for finishing it!”
Focusing on mastery helped many of us cope during the pandemic. If you haven’t tried building mastery, choose an activity that is new and challenging. Start small, knowing you can increase the difficulty level if you need to. Continue challenging yourself by increasing the difficulty when the activity gets easy and no longer makes you feel accomplished. Be on the lookout for the additional challenges posed for perfectionists. And, if you notice that perfectionism is sabotaging your life, your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self-esteem, check out this free guide with seven daily habits you can use to manage perfectionism.
What is the state of your mental health these days? The American Psychological Association's Stress in America report found that one year into the pandemic:
- 31% of us report our mental health has worsened (with even higher rates for moms of virtual learners!)
- 61% of us report undesired changes in our weight (48% of millennials report weight gain, with an average gain of 41 lbs!)
- Over 60% of Americans report undesirable changes in our sleep patterns (with people of color being affected the most!)
- About half of us feel uneasy about adjusting back to in-person interactions even when the pandemic ends
Can you relate to these statistics? How has the last year impacted you personally? Are you still struggling? Which data point resonates with you the most? : weight change, disrupted sleep, anxiety about the future, or an overall change in mood and worse mental health.
Personally, my sleep has been affected the most. It's why I created this YouTube video a few months ago. There were many, many nights when I slept up to 12 hours, my body craving rest from the chaos around me. Then other times, I couldn't fall asleep for hours, my mind churning with “what if's" about the future of Psych Hike, my family and friends' health, and the country as a whole.
Here are some things that have helped me in the last year:
Like many of you, 2020 was one of the most difficult years of my life. The long-term consequences of the pandemic coupled with ongoing racial and systemic injustices and continued polarization in the country continue to wreak havoc on our mental health. But, I'm hopeful that the worst is behind us. And I know, with the right tools, we are all capable of improving our mental health in powerful ways. I hope that this list gives you some ideas to try for Mental Health Awareness Month. Let me know how it goes by commenting below!
Everyone has one. But some are louder than others. I’m talking about that inner voice that you hear, the one that says really demeaning things. Maybe you walk into a room and it says, “I stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t belong here.” Or you walk by a mirror and it says, “I look awful. I can’t believe I went out in public like that.” Or you’re sitting in a meeting and you have something relevant and helpful to add, and it tells you, “People are going to think that’s really stupid, just stay quiet.”
Some idea of an inner critic has been around since people started studying the field of psychology. Freud called it our “super ego,” and he believed it reflected the morals and values we all start to learn at a young age from our culture and the people around us. According to Freud, the super ego punishes us with guilt when we don’t fall in line and rewards us by making us feel proud when we “act right.” The consensus is that our inner critic stems from critical messages we got from caregivers or our environment growing up. For perfectionists, it can be a voice that develops internally, from the unrealistic standards we hold ourselves to. Most people agree that, however it develops, the inner critic is a real problem.
I’d like to offer this alternative in thinking about our inner critic. Our brain is designed to judge and problem-solve. And that’s a really good thing. Sometimes that inner voice can help us identify when we’ve strayed from our goals or hurt people we care about, so we can get back on track or repair a relationship. Guilt, when justified, serves as a mechanism to correct course. Our inner critic keeps us vigilant to threats, like being judged negatively or not fitting in. I believe that our inner critic initially surfaced to protect us and keep us in the tribe. If I have the thought, “don’t say something stupid” in a meeting, that prompts me to read the nonverbal and verbal cues of my colleagues, remember past experiences where someone else was humiliated, and assess if it is truly safe to speak up. Our inner critic is designed to protect us.
It’s not that having an inner voice is the problem. In fact, having a part of your brain that scans for potential problems can be helpful. The problem with our inner critic is that she is so mean and harsh. She speaks with authority, even when she doesn’t have the whole story. The language that she uses is super judgmental. And, because your inner critic is trying to keep you safe, she shuts down any potential chance that you might be kicked out of your tribe by being ridiculed or judged by others. So, you don’t take chances. You play small. You don’t put yourself out there, and you never have opportunities to grow.
The inner critic is especially a problem for perfectionists because the standards your inner critic is holding you to are too high to achieve. There’s literally 0% chance of you being perfect, but your inner critic is holding the bar at perfection, so she is going to berate and demean you every time you fall short. Like Charlie Brown and the football, Lucy is your inner critic, setting you up for failure every single time.
Exposure to imperfection is critical for perfectionists. As an example, when I was working through my own perfectionism years ago, I forced myself to speak up in every single work meeting I attended. It forced my inner critic to lower the bar because she knew it couldn’t be perfect. There was no way I could prepare for what I was going to say at every meeting. And, when I didn’t get negative feedback for voicing my opinion or offering a potential solution, my inner critic learned that it was safe to speak up. She didn’t have to be so hypercritical as a way of trying to protect me from potential embarrassment.
Managing our inner critic is one of the most challenging but helpful things we can learn to do as perfectionists. I’ll continue sharing ideas for how to quiet our inner critic in future blog posts. If you prefer video content, you can also check out my YouTube channel here. And, if perfectionism is sabotaging your life, use the free guide I created to learn seven daily habits to manage perfectionism. It’s my mission to help women struggling with anxiety and depression recover and reach their full potential, starting by managing perfectionism
References and Resources:
Dr. Wetegrove-Romine’s Free Guide: 7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life
Is perfectionism affecting your work, relationships, sleep, and mood? It’s my life’s mission to help women recover from the anxiety and depression that comes with being a perfectionist. I’m here to teach you simple, evidence-based strategies to keep perfectionism from sabotaging your life, including your sleep.
This week, March 14-20, is Sleep Awareness Week. The week is designed to build awareness around sleep problems and educate us on how to get better sleep. While sleepless nights happen to all of us, perfectionists tend to have chronic trouble sleeping. But, do you know why?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a third of us aren’t getting the sleep we need. And researchers are already studying the effects that the pandemic has had on our sleep, calling the phenomenon “COVID-somnia.” The research is clear that increased financial stress, new worries about our health and the health of our family, a shift to telework that has created a blur between our work and personal, and added caregiving responsibilities are the culprit.
Most of us are so busy during the day completing tasks, checking off to-dos, and reaching our goals, that our brain doesn’t have the time to review events from the day. We don’t have time to reflect on conversations that were had or prepare for what’s to come. When things finally quiet down at night and our head hits the pillow, our brain sees that time as a perfect opportunity to start to rehash the day.
Does this scenario sound like you? You’re 100% ready to hit the hay and you feel physically exhausted, but the minute you get into bed your mind gets spinning. While this is typical for most of us, for perfectionists, specifically, the thoughts are usually very self-critical. If you’re a perfectionist, your brain is not just replaying the day’s events. It is also dissecting everything you said, everything you did, everything you didn’t do or say but wish you would have, and judging it all pretty harshly. Perfectionists hold themselves to unrealistic, ideal standards. When they reflect back on the day and the times they didn’t reach this unrealistic goal, it creates regret, shame and anxiety that keeps you up as well. Whereas someone who isn’t a perfectionist may quickly run through the day’s events, like a highlight reel, and prepare for the day ahead by making a list of to-dos, perfectionists pick apart the day’s events with a fine toothed comb and catastrophize the events to come based on the unrealistic standards they set for themselves.
Don’t you wish you could just turn it all off? If you are a perfectionist, chances are these kinds of unhelpful patterns are deeply rooted, and it will take working to change those thoughts, likely with the help of a mental health professional. But, what can you do in the meantime to get some relief and fall asleep easier? I suggest three tools, based on research (links below):
1. Scheduling Worry Time
Setting aside a specific time before you get into bed to do the rehashing and dissecting that your brain is going to do when your head hits the pillow can be helpful. Use scheduled “worry” time to do all the things your mind does when you’re trying to sleep. Replay conversations and make to-do lists for tomorrow. Predict what might go wrong and plan ahead for it. Rehearse anything important, like a conversation you’re going to have with your boss. Give yourself permission to worry! Set a time for 15 minutes, and let your brain do what it does, without judgment. Your brain worries because it’s trying to protect you, so thank your brain, and then move on. Be sure to schedule worry time early enough in the day or evening that the worries don’t carry over to bedtime. My favorite time to schedule worry time is around 6PM, so I have time to enjoy the rest of my evening and still give myself an hour to wind down before bed.
2. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude has been proven to help people with a host of mental health issues, including getting better sleep. Your gratitude practice can be as formal or informal as you like. Typically, perfectionists (or recovering perfectionists, like me!) prefer more structure. Writing 3-5 things you’re grateful for each evening is one way to go. If you don’t want to add another structured activity to your day, something as simple as thinking about the things you’re grateful for while you brush your teeth or wash your face before bed can be an easy way to implement this. Gratitude lessens the intensity of worries and it helps us see a bigger picture, so our worries don’t seem so catastrophic. Decreasing the intensity of worries is going to help us fall and stay asleep easier.
3. Foster Self-Compassion
Research has shown that perfectionists have thoughts at bed that sound like this: “If only I had made another choice!” and “I wish I could undo it!” Recognizing that no one is perfect and that all of us could do better helps us be more self-compassionate. In my free guide, “7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life,” I share that naming our inner critic can be beneficial. Recognizing our inner critic is trying to protect us from future failure by amplifying our mistakes serves as a reminder that our brains are biased to see the negative. Viewing our mistakes through a lens of self-compassion prompts us to see that we are a work in progress, that we are committed to growing and learning, and that we will do better next time. When you notice your inner critic beating you up, congratulate yourself instead on the way you treated people today, the successes you had, or at the very least, the situations and interactions that you didn’t mess up on.
If you identify as a perfectionist, I hope these three tips help you get better sleep. You deserve it! Many of us have perfectionistic tendencies, and these tendencies in and of themselves aren’t necessarily a problem. But if you notice that perfectionism is sabotaging your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self-esteem, consider talking to a mental health professional, like a psychologist or masters’ level therapist. Visit www.psych-hike.com for details on the services I provide for perfectionists, including hike therapy, a great way to exercise your mind and your body.
And, if perfectionism is sabotaging your life, start the work by checking out my gift to you, a free guide I created with 7 daily habits you can start now to manage perfectionism. Like I said, it’s my mission to help women struggling with anxiety and depression recover and reach their full potential!
References and Resources:
Dr. Wetegrove-Romine’s Free Guide: 7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life
Centers for Disease Control
National Sleep Foundation
Digdon, Nancy and Koble, Amy (2011). Effects of constructive worry, imagery distraction, and gratitude interventions on sleep quality: a pilot study. Applied Psychology: Health and Well Being, 3 (2), 193-206.
Gilbert, Paul and Procter, Sue (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Clinical Psychology Psychotherapy, 13, 353–379.
Hurley, Dan (2020). Sleep neurologists call It ‘COVID-somnia’—increased sleep disturbances linked to the pandemic. Neurology Today, website.
Schenk, Lauren. Gratitude helps you get a good night’s sleep. Mindfulness Muse, website.
Schmidt, Ralph, et al. (2018). Too imperfect to fall asleep: perfectionism, pre-sleep counterfactual processing, and insomnia. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1288.
Mental health IS health: Why don’t we treat our emotional health the same way we treat our physical health?
Most of us believe we should see a physician when we're sick.
Especially in this time of COVID, we get really, really nervous when we don't feel well. A lingering cough or runny nose? Headaches for a week? We recognize that "something's not right" and, whether we go to the doctor or not, we take steps to address our symptoms.
So, what stops you from going to therapy the same way you'd go to your PCP if you were sick?
While stigma around mental health is decreasing (and it's about dang time, am I right?!), a lot of people will never make it in to a therapist's office.
There are a lot of reasons behind this: not having health insurance or not being able to afford private pay as more therapists (myself included) move away from a broken insurance system that does not compensate providers fairly; not finding a therapist that looks like you (only about 5% of psychologists are Black, while 4% are Latinx); fears about judgment from your family or friends or worse, your therapist; not having paid leave from your job; competing priorities like care giving responsibilities and employment; or maybe it's a lack of anonymity if you live in a rural area where everybody knows everybody.
A shift to telehealth is addressing some of these problems; about 75% of therapists have taken their practice virtual since March. But, almost half of the country reports deteriorating mental health due to the pandemic.
Mental health smart phone app use is on the rise but some of the services offered on these apps aren't scientifically proven to help, and there aren't many regulations around app development. This means your private information might be shared or important information provided on the app might be incorrect.
So, how do mental health professionals like me support our communities at a time when more people than ever are struggling?
I'm still getting people outdoors to move their bodies and talk it out with hike therapy, and I've also increased access to therapy with video sessions.
But what if you're not feeling therapy and you just want to learn more about how to build solid mental health habits?
Self-paced, low cost, digital courses and small group coaching packages might be right up your alley. While these modalities are not a substitute for therapy, I think they can meet people where they're at right now, in these really unique times we're all in.
I'm going to be launching a course soon, and I'd love to know what health topics you'd be interested in learning about. Shoot me an email here.
What would help you NOW? What information do you need to move you towards healthier living, both physically and emotionally? I'd love to hear from you and offer some support.
Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you're struggling with.
We are in this together.
I used to think there were two types of people. Those that got things done because they were strong and driven, full of willpower. And those who dreamed big dreams and talked about doing big things but lacked the self-discipline to follow-through. I was judgmental back then. Mostly judgmental towards myself, believing I fell in the second category. I lacked all understanding of the psychology of motivation, productivity, and behavior change.
I’ve been a therapist for 10 years now, and I’ve seen thousands of clients, each unique in what’s shaped them. Many carry the pain of trauma(s), and almost all of them have experienced some adverse event that affects the way they see themselves.
Now, I believe that everyone has the strength to do hard things. I understand that the difference between people who achieve their goals and those whose dreams lay dormant is in their beliefs about themselves. But, whether I think you are strong has little bearing on whether you will reach your full potential. Rather, what is it that YOU think about yourself?
When I didn’t believe I was strong enough, smart enough, or capable enough, I stood still. Overthinking, overanalyzing, in a state of “analysis paralysis.” Even when people told me I was strong and smart; I didn’t believe in my own capability. Up until then, I typically quit anything that got too tough, and it wasn’t until I proved my strength to myself by sticking through something hard that I started to believe in myself. Then I got curious about what else I could achieve.
I started proving to myself that I was capable through the practice of mastery.
Mastery is doing something that makes you feel confident and competent and gives you a sense of accomplishment. The activity must be hard enough that it’s challenging but not so hard that it’s impossible to achieve the first time you set out to do it. For example, if you’ve never run, mastery might mean running for 60 seconds without stopping and then gradually increasing over time. Mastery is trying activities that are new and sticking through when it gets hard, without setting yourself up for failure by choosing an activity that is going to be too difficult to begin with.
Mastery is about balance.
Nature led me to mastery, though it’s not what I was looking for. I was drawn to the outdoors as a way to stay connected to my dad after he passed away. I went on a short hike that made my body ache afterwards. And then I wondered, how far could I hike next time? And then, to what elevation? I started challenging myself and lo and behold, I started believing I could do harder things. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. In a world where I had been taught to be quiet and small, the outdoors gave me an opportunity to do things that made me feel big and powerful. Even when they were scary. I learned that you don’t have to be 100% confident that you’ll be successful in order to take risks. You just have to be confident that there’s A CHANCE of success. Years of building mastery has taught me that there’s ALWAYS a chance.
In mental health news, mastery builds resistance to depression and anxiety. It helps us feel confident, which improves our mood. It makes us feel more "in control" of our environment, which alleviates anxiety. It increases “feel good” emotions, like joy, peace, and contentment.
Many of us are not taught that mastery and self-compassion are keys to being motivated and “getting things done,” so I’ve created a coaching program to help women build these skills! We will explore the stories women tell themselves about motivation and willpower and how these stories actually create barriers to reaching goals. In this program, I’ve used psychological science to build simple strategies to create more energy and motivation. It launches July 14 and I’ll be releasing registration info in the coming weeks!
How do you build mastery? Leave a comment!
Goal setting is an important component of therapy and should happen early on. It provides a road map for both the therapist and the client each session and helps to keep us on track. Recently, I was having a session with a client and we were discussing her goal to reduce her binge eating episodes and replace them with healthier eating habits. I posed a question I typically ask all my clients: “What do you think has gotten in the way of making this change in the past?” And, I heard it! The statement I get from women (and men) time and time again. “Well, I guess I just don’t have enough willpower.”
You know that if you could reach your goals, you’d be happier and more fulfilled. How many times have you said to yourself, “If I just had more willpower, I’d… go back to school, write a book the world needs right now, read about how to communicate better with my partner, learn how to parent more effectively, get healthier and stick with it, pick up the hobby I’ve been saying I want to do for the last three years.” What comes next is all too familiar for most of us. We beat ourselves up a little more than last time, judge ourselves harshly, thinking we fell short again, and remain highly self-critical. We think if we’re just a little harder on ourselves it will generate a type of willpower that we don’t currently have but desperately need.
Here’s a secret. IT’S NOT ABOUT WILLPOWER. At least not completely. While self-discipline can help us reach our goals, research shows that SELF-COMPASSION can also help us stick to healthy behaviors. And for many, self-compassion is the first step in increasing self-control.
If you fall short but believe you can learn from the experience and do better next time, you are more likely to reach your goal over time. This growth mindset begins by challenging the myths you believe about yourself, like “I’m not strong enough or smart enough.” You develop a growth mindset not through willpower, but by exposing yourself to new and challenging situations with the goal of learning rather than performing perfectly. As you build feelings of worthiness, confidence, and self-compassion, you are less likely to quit when you make a mistake and more apt to keep pushing forward even as it remains difficult.
Spending time in nature can help you build these skills. You can engage in outdoor activities to bust the myths you believe about yourself, by hiking further than you’ve ever hiked, breaking a sweat, and pushing your limits with each outing. I’ve been running outdoors for about five years. It’s still not easy for me. Sure, it’s not as challenging to run a mile as it was when I first started but running is still difficult and may always be that way for me. I’m not naturally athletic, my heart rate elevates quickly, and a lot of my energy is spent focusing on regulating my breathing. What has changed about my running routine, however, is my ability to see each run as an opportunity to learn something about my body and how it works, try different breathing techniques, and practice gratitude. Focusing on my “why,” that is, the purpose behind why I run, has also helped me shift from thinking only about reaching my goals to one of challenging myself for the sake of growing.
I have heard client after client say that building more willpower is the answer to reaching their goals. I’ve worked with too many clients to count, helping them grow SELF-COMPASSION instead, so they can be kinder to themselves and less judgmental. And when they make these changes, they always start to move closer to their goals than when they were trying to shore up willpower alone. Because of both these professional experiences and my own personal one, I decided to create a coaching program that will explore the stories women tell themselves about motivation and willpower and how these stories actually create barriers to reaching their goals. I also aim to teach participants more helpful strategies for reaching goals, based on psychological science that includes harnessing the power of nature to create more energy and motivation. It launches next month and I can’t wait to share more about it in the coming weeks!
Dyouck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York : Ballantine Books.
Self-care is having a moment. From bubble baths, chocolate cake, and wine, my Instagram feed is littered with #selfcaresunday posts with this kind of content. And, don’t get me wrong. Treating ourselves can be self-care. As a mental health professional, I’m excited to see individuals, especially women, focused on taking care of their emotional and mental health. But, it’s not all about indulgence. More often than not, real self-care is the hard work of intentionally removing the things that give us short term relief but create long-term negative consequences to our mental health.
Enter social media. Like many of you, I have a complicated relationship with social. On the one hand, I can keep up with friends and family I don’t see enough. I appreciate the Events tab on Facebook, which has kept me in the loop about local shows, cultural activities, farmers markets, and the like. It’s easy to post to one central location so that my friends and family can keep up with me, too. In fact, many a conversation has started with, “So I saw on Facebook (or Instagram) that you were at (fill in the blank). How was that?”
But, a lot of the time, social media leaves me feeling less-than-fulfilled. Sure, I see friends and family post vacation pictures and their kids’ best moments, but I’m not there to experience that with them. We might exchange brief, shallow pleasantries, but it’s difficult to engage in the deep, meaningful conversations that I crave. After scrolling mindlessly for an hour (or more! Some of us spend up to six hours per day on social!) I’m often left feeling guilty or unsatisfied about not using the time more productively. I feel annoyed about a post sharing inaccurate, false information. And, let’s not forget the infamous political rants that can leave me feeling demoralized about the state of our country for hours afterwards. Social media, with its benefits, can be a toxic place. In fact, 15 million Americans left Facebook this year, citing the constant stream of negative news, rants, and political posts, and stating they needed a mental health break as their reasons for jumping ship.
In addition to the toxic environment that social media can often create, there are other insidious consequences to engaging in it heavily. It contributes to a more sedentary lifestyle and decreases real-time interactions, both known to contribute to depression. More young people feel ill-equipped to engage socially because most of their interactions take place through a screen. Many people report increased anxiety due to FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. Never-ending notifications disrupt our work, sleep, and relationships. Upward social comparison, comparing our worst moments to other people’s best, is particularly damaging for young girls. After all, most of us are sharing our lives through filters, and it becomes easy to forget that others’ feeds are simply a highlight reel of best moments with heavy editing.
The research paints a startling picture. The more time we spend on social media, the more depressed, anxious, and lonely we feel. Maybe we don’t connect our use with those feelings. For those who suffer with mental health issues already, it might be difficult to point to an episode on social media and say that it caused our negative emotions. I’d encourage you to become vigilant about the content you’re consuming and take stock of how you feel immediately before and after being on social media. While I don’t endorse a complete departure from social media because it’s next to impossible in our culture today (though if you are interested in that approach, Cal Newport is someone worth checking out), I do encourage a mindful, deliberate approach to using social media. Here are four strategies to start with.
If you are committed to self-care, consider decreasing your social media use. It will improve your mental health more than the myriad of short-term solutions that are being marketed throughout the wellness industry. Many of us struggle to fit self-care activities in on a regular basis. By giving up social media, you are freeing up your schedule to engage in the things and with the people that really matter. And, that’s real #selfcare.
As Suicide Prevention month continues, I wanted to clue you into a few vulnerable populations at greater risk of suicide than the general population. I feel particularly close to each of these groups for personal reasons. While scientists and researchers find cures for a variety of other public health crises, suicide remains on the rise for all of the US, except Nevada. I hope you’ll consider ways to help these groups if you can; I have included resources to learn more about how to donate, volunteer, and educate yourself more on the struggles each of these groups face.
Both of my grandfathers were Veterans and my uncle continues to serve our country proudly. I’ve provided psychotherapy to Veterans for the last five years, specifically Veterans experiencing homelessness. Veterans are the most loyal and service-driven group of men and women I have the pleasure of knowing and working with. Here’s the devastating statistic: Twenty-two Veterans kill themselves each day. Though it may appear Veterans have plenty of support in the way of community resources, many feel isolated and have trouble fitting in after they leave the military. The truth is, only about 7% of the American population is made up of Veterans. It makes sense that when you are the minority, it is difficult for the people around you to fully understand what you are going through. What are the challenges Veterans face today? 11-20% are diagnosed with PTSD, depending on the service era (e.g. Vietnam vs Gulf War vs Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom). In addition to combat, Veterans have higher rates of sexual trauma. Many suffer from depression and anxiety. They have higher rates of disability and are more likely to experience homelessness. Veterans carry invisible wounds of war that civilians could never know about unless we develop the courage to ask.
With so much attention focused on Veteran suicides, I was astonished when I read an article in 2017 stating farmers had suicide rates double that of Veterans. As the rural-urban divide grows, with approximately 80% of Americans calling urban and suburban areas home, it is hard to truly understand the plight of rural farmers. I have a unique perspective, my dad a fourth generation farmer and family members who continue to grow, pack, and ship. Growing up in a farming family, I saw firsthand the stress that a bad season brings, the impact it has on a marriage, the time farming takes away from family, the pressure to make ends meet. Factors outside of farmers’ control, like flooding, drought, and pests, can take a major toll on revenue. As global warming continues to wreak havoc on our planet, farmers face more adversity. Additionally, farming can be a socially isolating occupation, with many activities spent in solitude or with only your family members. Living in a remote area presents barriers to accessing mental health services; for example, growing up in rural south Texas in the 1990s, the nearest mental health professional was a 30 minute drive away. Add to this the typical stereotype of the stoic farmer, unwilling to admit there’s something wrong, plus higher access to lethal means, such as firearms and high-powered farm equipment, and we begin to paint a stark picture. States with vast rural areas, such as Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming carry the highest rates of suicide in the country.
Transgender men and women
Imagine feeling unsafe in your own community? 90% of trans people report facing prejudice and discrimination. They are shunned from their families and peer groups and harassed at churches, schools, and workplaces, finding themselves isolated and alone. They experience high rates of unemployment and homelessness, creating an immense amount of stress that most of us could never imagine. The transgender community is one of the most misunderstood groups today, with dangerous myths and completely false narratives spread about them. While there has been a light shed on the trans community recently, the truth is, trans folks have existed in cultures throughout recorded time. Transgender is a term that means a person’s gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth, and research indicates there are at least 700,000 transgender people in the US (but many are justifiably scared of the risks of coming out, so this number is probably higher). Over 40% of trans folks have attempted suicide, with more than half of transgender male teens reporting an attempt. And yet, with all this adversity, transgender folks remain among the most resilient clients I have the opportunity of working with. When they connect with a loving and supportive community they thrive, and many contribute, create, make positive impacts on the community, and work for justice for all.
What can we do?
If you know a Veteran or farmer or trans man or woman personally, check in with them. Ask them how they’re doing. Invite them over for dinner. Call or text them regularly. Pay attention to changes in their mood and notice if they begin to talk about hopelessness, increased stress, or not feeling like themselves. Share your own struggles to normalize and validate their experience. Encourage them to seek professional help. Take them to appointments if you can or follow up with them afterwards to show you care.
Learn the warning signs and intervene when you see someone struggling. Websites like https://www.bethe1to.com/ and https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ are great resources. I also post mental health information @drwetegrove and on my blog. You can sign up for my weekly newsletter, too, for more information on suicide prevention and general mental health tips.
Support initiatives that provide funding and support to these groups specifically. Whether you contribute financially or volunteer your time, most organizations rely on public involvement. Organizations to consider include:
National Veterans Foundation: https://nvf.org/
The Wounded Warrior Project: https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
Farm Aid: https://www.farmaid.org/
Human Rights Campaign: https://www.hrc.org/
The Trevor Project: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/get-involved/
*I am not affiliated with any of these organizations and their listing here does not indicate my endorsement.*
Contact your local legislators and ask what they are doing to support these communities. Suicide is a public health crisis and it’s important to know where the people who represent you stand on this issue. I know that most of us are tired of the politicizing of EVERYTHING, however, legislators ultimately decide how our tax dollars should be spent. Getting mental health treatment into the lives of those who need it and expanding suicide prevention initiatives will save lives. Speaking up for vulnerable populations is up to us. Use https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials to identify your representatives and look up their contact information. Write or call them. Attend town halls when they are in your area.
Are there other at-risk populations you’re interested in learning about? Questions about suicide prevention? Let me know in the comments below.