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Unexpected Wisdom to Get Better Results

Small actions, done consistently, pay off huge dividends. It’s an effective way to get better results whether we’re talking about working out, increasing happiness, or fostering healthy relationships.

Getting in shape

My little brother is a beast. He is incredibly in shape, and it’s not genetic luck. He’s put in the years of hard work to figure out his optimal nutrition, and he puts in serious time at the gym. He’s experimented enough that he knows what to eat and how to workout to increase strength or cut to show off definition or bulk up, whatever. He’s a whiz at sculpting his physique.

I, on the other hand, try to be active but, like so many, struggle to be disciplined. In my head, I believe wholeheartedly that strength-training is critical for health and wellbeing. My actions, however, speak the truth – that I’d rather do anything but. Besides, I get overwhelmed sifting through all of the advice out there to figure out what I actually should be doing to get the results I want. Should I do tons of reps with little weights? Fewer reps with heavy weights? Functional training? Isometrics? Kettle bells? I don’t even know where to start! 

My brother is also one of the most inspiring people in my circle. I always leave our conversations feeling ready to take on the world and to be a better version of myself. For these reasons, I was really looking forward to asking his advice when we were together in Fort Worth a couple weeks ago for our nephew’s graduation.

“Hey, kiddo. I want to get buff fast. What should I do?”

His answer blew my mind a bit.

Unexpected wisdom

I was looking for a plan, detailed instructions on what to eat and how to exercise. Instead, what I got was actually beyond useful.

“Honestly, Ash, the best advice I can give you is ‘whatever you can do consistently’.”

His advice was like a light bulb going off. Duh! Of course, consistency is the highest priority. I could have the optimal fitness plan, but if I can’t (or won’t) follow it, for whatever reason, I’m not going to get results. It was freeing to cut through all of the noise and feel good about focusing on one top priority: just be consistent. Walk, yoga, run, dance, regret catching the occasional HIIT class. All of these will move me toward my goal. 

That conversation helped me realize that I was letting the pursuit of the best get in the way of progress. 

It got me thinking about how many other places and in how many other ways this mindset might apply. Where do we tend to seek out the best, the perfect, the right, the big pay off, or the grand gesture to our detriment? Where does focusing on big moves lead us to be ineffective or, worse, take no action at all? 

The Danish secret to happiness

Right around this same time, I stumbled across the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”). Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations on Earth despite having long, dark winters. I’d venture to say that a culture based on hygge is one of the main reasons. 

Hygge is cozy, warm, connected moments. It’s candlelight instead of harsh overheads. It’s snuggling up with a warm blanket in a welcoming nook to read or board games with your best buds. It’s comfort food and comfortable silence, laughter and intimacy. It’s coffee shops with close friends over bars with strangers. And it’s a priority, built into every day. 

In the U.S. (where I live), I think we often look to big, noticeable outside things to bring us happiness – shopping, vacations, dream dates and jobs, promotions or achievements – and we underestimate the cumulative effect that little moments of cozy pleasure may have on us.

What if we took that same “whatever you can do consistently” mentality and applied it here? What if we made efforts to design our daily experience – our activities and our environments – to promote hygge? I can’t help but think that would pay dividends in terms of happiness. 

The foundation of strong close relationships

Similarly, small things often trumps grand gestures when it comes to relationships. John and Julie Gottman are psychologists and the world’s leading experts in couple relationships, with about 40 years of research under their belts. They can predict with near-perfect precision which couples will stay together happily and which will not simply by observing them talk for a few minutes. Based on all of their research and knowledge, the Gottmans advocate for small things often. 

It’s the little moments that build – or break – your relationships. A grand gesture of rom-com proportions might make for a good story, but it won’t erase the damage of speaking unkind words or ignoring your partner’s bids for attention on a daily basis. When it comes to healthy, happy relationships, it’s the small things, repeated frequently – a habit of relationship-boosting interactions, if you will – that matters most.  

Life design and positive habits

At Peak Mind, we’re big proponents of life design – a process for experimenting your way toward a life aligned to you. A key aspect of life design is iteration – designing an experiment, testing it out, then tweaking. It hinges on a bias toward action. Take the step, have the experience, let that experience be your guide, then take another step. Let’s carry this attitude and my little brother’s wisdom forward to every domain of life. 

  • Consistency matters most if you’re looking to change habits and get better results.
  • Small changes are easier to maintain than big ones.
  • Small things, repeated often, pay off with big results. 

Can you imagine what life might feel like if we did that?

“Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
James Clear
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Peak Mind Pro: Mindfulness at Work

If there was a magic pill that made you sharper, more effective, more creative, and more socially skilled while simultaneously improving the quality of your decisions and reducing the number of mistakes you made – with side effects of lower stress and more happiness – would you take it?

Absolutely! 

And you’d probably give it to everyone on your team or in your organization as well.

While this magic pill doesn’t exist yet, mindfulness does all of those things. 

Mindfulness is your competitive edge

Many people these days have heard of mindfulness and how beneficial it can be, but they’ve dismissed it due, in large part, to misunderstanding what it actually is.

Set aside any preconceived notions of sitting cross-legged on a pillow with your eyes closed and mind going blank. Instead, think of mindfulness as heightened focus and awareness. This combo is your competitive edge. 

In action, mindfulness at work means being fully aware of what is happening, both inside of you and around you, and being able to direct and sustain your focused attention where you need it.

 

Awareness

How much time do you spend on autopilot or lost in your head? If you’re anything like the average person, it’s at least 47% of the time. That means that you are not fully present and focused on what you are doing roughly half of the time. That also means that you’re likely missing out on lots of vital information. Imagine how much more effective you could be if you raised that number even a little bit.

Focus

Being able to direct and control your attention – focusing on what is important while filtering out distractions – allows you to perform at a higher level while exerting less energy. Multitasking is a myth. When we divide our attention, we are actually shifting back and forth from one task to the other, albeit sometimes very quickly. That shifting eats up our limited resource of attention and actually requires more energy and effort resulting in more mental fatigue and stress and less quality work. 

The Solution

Mindfulness – being aware and focused – is a core element of psychological strength. As with all core elements, it is a skill that can be developed if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do so. 

Tips to Try

While setting aside time most days for a formal mindful meditation practice (e.g., with an app like 10% Happier, Calm, or Headspace) can be tremendously beneficial, this just isn’t feasible for many people for a number of reasons. At Peak Mind, we are fans of finding effective ways to build mindfulness into the cracks of a busy, modern lifestyle. Try these tips out for a couple of weeks and see what a difference it can make.

1. Help you and your team have more effective meetings by starting with a little mindfulness. Ask everyone to set aside their phone, tablet, or laptop and spend the first 2 minutes of the meeting in silence thinking about the goals for the meeting. This will allow everyone to show up both physically and mentally, to become aware and focused on the task at hand. You will likely notice that meetings become more efficient.

2. Encourage employees (and model this behavior by doing it yourself) to carve out dedicated work times in which they focus solely on one important task or project. This means making these time blocks as distraction-free as possible by turning off notifications.

3. Build in mini-mindfulness breaks. Set a timer to go off hourly (or at least periodically). When the timer goes off, notice what you are doing and where your mind is. Were you focused on what you’re doing? Try to follow one full breath. This means resting your attention on your breath and trying to stay with it from the start of the inhale, to the pause at the top, and all the way through the exhale. Then, ask yourself, what do I want to focus on right now? 

If you are interested in learning more ways to help you and your team develop this vital skill, email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn
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How and Why to Control Your Attention

What you focus on matters. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life experience.

Psychological resources

When you think about your important resources and how they influence your life, what comes to mind?

Most people think of money or other financial resources. Those are important, for sure. They’re the key to some aspects of stability, freedom, and pleasure. I’d argue, though, that we expend too much time and energy acquiring and protecting that particular resource at the expense of others that have a dramatic impact on our life experience. 

Just as your financial assets may make a tangible difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience, so will your psychological resources. Yet, we often overlook the importance of these resources and how the ways in which we choose to “spend” them will shape our life experience. Today, let’s focus on one important psychological resource: attention.

Attention

Simply put, what we focus on matters. The information we take in and the relationships, activities, and aspects of experience that we spend time on will have a big effect on us. What we focus on day in and day out shapes who we are, our outlook on life and the world, and, ultimately, what we do with our time on this planet. 

Attention is a limited resource, though, so it’s important to think about where and how you “spend” it. Unless you’re a fellow psychologist or really into mindfulness, you probably haven’t thought a lot about where your attention goes and why. 

Internal and external distractions

Our attention gets hijacked all the time, with and without our direct permission, We are constantly being bombarded by demands for attention. Things come at us from the outside (like notifications or loud noises) and from the inside (internal distractions like urges, thoughts, and emotions). Our minds, awesome little jerks that they can be, often don’t help us out because they happily chase any and every distraction unless we have the awareness and ability to stop them.

Being able to consciously direct your attention is an important skill and one that can be developed. Think about the implications here. Rather than having your attention jerked around by any internal or external distraction, what if you could choose where to focus and sustain your attention? What if you could hone in on something and filter out everything else? What if you could stay focused on the things, people, and tasks that you deem worthy? What a difference that would make! Strengthening your attentional control muscle gives you an advantage in virtually every area of life.

Get intentional with your attention

One of my favorite authors, Mark Manson, introduced the concept of our attention diet, comparable to nutrition. If we eat the super appealing, highly addictive, easy junk foods like candy and chips, we may find momentary pleasure. But at what cost? Repeatedly, over time, eating junk makes our bodies incredibly unhealthy. Manson argues it’s the same thing with our minds. If we repeatedly consume junk, there will be a negative impact on the quality, strength, and health of our minds. That makes sense to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good Netflix binge. But, if I’m being honest, what actually happens after more than a day of heavy TV watching is that my motivation goes down. It’s that much easier to hang out on the couch the next day and to lose steam on the projects that are actually important or value-adding to me. What’s more is that the quality of my thoughts and mood are impacted, too. My enthusiasm is dampened, and things in general feel a little more blah. I know this isn’t just me. 

Guarding your attention

In addition to having the ability to control our attention, being intentional about where we choose to direct our attention is critical. Here are a few tips for protecting and maximizing this precious psychological resource.

1. Take up a mindfulness practice

Mindfulness, a core element of psychological strength, is essentially attention training, and I believe that’s part of why it’s such a beneficial practice to cultivate. There are a ton of ways to build mindfulness, and I’d encourage you to experiment until you find some that work for you. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, join us at our next Quarterly Workshop (it’s virtual), Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think, in July.  

2. Be ruthless with distractions and ntifications

You expend less energy and waste less of your limited attention if you set yourself up for success. Be brutal when it comes to notifications. Ask yourself, do I really want to let this app interrupt me and hijack my attention at any point? Do I really need these notifications on my watch? Put your phone on silent or do not disturb when you need to focus or, better yet, leave it in another room. Same thing goes with being available online for direct messaging. Remove distractions and attention hijackers from your environment when possible.

3. Reflect on what you take in

Spend some time regularly reflecting on what you’re taking in and the quality of your attention diet, so to speak. Are you gorging yourself on junk information and relationships or are you taking in high quality, nutrient rich ones? 

Bottom line: It’s important to consider how your attention shapes who you are and what your life is like. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life.

“Remember: What gets attention is not always important. And what is important rarely gets attention.”
Mark Manson
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Supporting Someone with Mental Health Struggles

It can be difficult to support a loved one with mental illness. These tips and strategies from a therapist will help.

There is no one size fits all

Statistically speaking, 20 – 25% of people over 18 have a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, and that’s not taking into account the rampant levels of self-reported anxiety, stress, and depression that have skyrocketed over the past two years. When we consider these numbers, it is incredibly likely that someone you know and care about is struggling with their mental health. You may not know what to do or how to best support them, and you might find that your best efforts fall flat, don’t seem to help, or maybe even make things worse. That can lead to feeling powerless, confused, frustrated, and sad. Fortunately, there are things you can do.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that “mental illness” is a really broad term. Mental illness comes in a variety of flavors and forms. That means that two people with mental illness are likely to be very different, which means they have very different needs. Compare it to this: If your loved one had a health condition, how would you support them? 

Well, it depends.

Do they have severe allergies? Cancer? Diabetes? Chronic pain? The specifics of their condition would heavily influence how you supported them. It’s the same thing with mental health. Find out their diagnosis if they have one and/or get a good understanding of their experiences and the symptoms that get in the way for them. Then seek out treatment options. It can be difficult to find the right kind of treatment or the right provider(s). If you can take on some of that research, you might remove a barrier to getting the needed help.

Things to keep in mind: Tips from a therapist

In the nearly 20 years that I’ve been practicing psychology, I’ve talked with a lot of parents, partners, and friends about their desire to help their loved one. These are some conversations I find myself having frequently.

Be patient: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

While effective treatments exist, many mental illnesses are chronic conditions, so it’s best to think of management rather than cure (like allergies or diabetes). The long-term, day in and day out nature of symptom management can make it hard to be patient and supportive, especially if it looks like your loved one isn’t trying to do what they need to. Keep in mind that it’s human for motivation to wax and wane, so your person may not be fully motivated every single day to use the strategies or interventions that they know work for them.

There’s also a really good chance that they’re working harder than you realize. A lot of the work to manage anxiety or depression, for example, happens on the inside, which you just can’t see. You’ll only see the symptoms that break through. Assume that they are sincerely trying and want to get better. 

Know that it isn’t your fault

You didn’t cause this. Parents, I’m looking at you especially. But, there may be things that you’re doing that inadvertently make it worse. I call this feeding the dog. Going down the “If only” path won’t change anything. You can only focus on moving forward. 

It’s not their fault either

They didn’t ask for anxiety or depression or addiction or neurodivergence or any other label. Remember that when you find yourself feeling angry or frustrated. This was not their choice and not their fault. 

They are not their disorder

There’s a therapeutic technique that I find incredibly helpful called externalization. This means separating the individual from their disorder. Doing so opens the door for you to be on the same team, working to beat the disorder. Think about someone with cancer. We instinctively know that they are not their cancer, that cancer is something that happened to them, and is something that they are working to overcome. Mental illness is no different.

What not to do when your love one has a mental illness

You can’t guilt, shame, or criticize someone out of mental illness. While I understand the desire to pour those on at times (Why can’t you just…? If you truly loved me, then you’d… No one else…). Deep down we think we can get them to choose to be different. These tactics just don’t work that way and, in fact, might actually make things worse. 

Refrain from unhelpful advice

Don’t worry” or “Don’t be sad” are just not helpful things to hear. If it were as simple as Nike’s Just Do It, they would have done it eons ago. 

“You should…” Even if your intentions are positive and your advice is actually helpful, phrasing it as a should often lands as a criticism. Find another way to say it. Better yet, do it with them

Don’t bury your head

Denial also isn’t helpful for either of you. It is generally beneficial to acknowledge reality as it actually is. Minimizing or downplaying or pretending things don’t exist gets in the way of taking effective action. Besides, early intervention is often easier and faster than waiting until things get critically bad.

Do this instead: How to support a loved one with mental illness

In general, try to operate as a compassionate collaborator – someone who accepts them and understands how hard this is, is willing to work together to come up with game plans and offer accountability, and is accepting of them as a whole person.

Learn about their mental illness

Knowledge is power. Once you have an idea of the condition or symptoms that your loved one is experiencing, learn about it! The better understanding you have of the condition or struggles, the better able you’ll be to help.

For example, in my practice, I work mostly with anxiety and OCD. Good Parenting 101 says do whatever you can to make your kid feel healthy, happy, and secure. When it comes to OCD and anxiety, though, that approach completely backfires. When parents provide reassurance that worries will not come true or help the child avoid something they find scary, the child feels better…temporarily. But the worries keep coming back. It’s important to have a solid understanding of how anxiety works to feel confident responding to your child’s worries by saying, “That’s just a worry. Be brave.” 

Similarly, if your partner has ADHD, they may have trouble with time management. If you don’t understand that ADHD is a brain-based condition that affects executive functioning (planning and carrying out tasks), you might get angry and interpret chronic lateness as a sign of disrespect when it’s anything but. 

When it comes to learning about mental illness, the internet can be a wonderful place. It can also be a source of complete junk. Look for reputable sites like these:

www.adaa.org

www.nami.org

www.childmind.org

Go there: Talk about hard things

Ask questions and be curious about their experience. And when they answer, listen. Really listen. With the intent of understanding, not fixing or giving unsolicited advice. Don’t shy away from difficult topics or asking hard questions (it’s a myth that asking someone about suicide will make them have suicidal thoughts). Opening the door for discussions about tough topics is a wonderful gift. Even if they don’t want to talk at that moment, you’ve given the message that you are there, that you care, and that you are not afraid of what they might be thinking/feeling/experiencing. You’ve just shown yourself to be a safe, supportive ally. 

Be a pushy cheerleader

Encourage your loved one to do things that are healthy for them. Broadly speaking, most people need to move, socialize, do enjoyable things, accomplish tasks, and get outside. And there may be additional things that your loved one needs to do for their own treatment or mental health support. Invite your loved one to do it with you, even if they don’t want to. And heap on the praise and positive reinforcement for any effort they make. Sometimes just getting out of bed when depression is strong is a victory that deserves to be celebrated!

Positive reinforcement can help

You call it bribing. I call reinforcing desired behaviors. Make a deal with your loved one. If they will go to treatment appointments, use their strategies, do one thing every day that supports their mental health, or fill in the blank, then you’ll do fill in the blank. Kids love working for rewards…and so do adults. Many of the adults I work with set up their own reward plans to support their therapy goals

Take care of yourself

It’s important for you to take care of yourself. It can be really challenging to love someone who is struggling with mental health, especially if their symptoms have a direct impact on you. It does not make you selfish or weak or uncaring to do self-care or set boundaries. Being a compassionate collaborator does not mean that you let your loved one treat you poorly, even if their behavior is driven by mental illness.

Have hope

Finally, have hope. It can get better. Incredible people do incredible things every day, even with (or perhaps even because of) mental illness. 

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Making Sense of the Senseless

How can we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss? How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

Coping with tragedy, trauma, and loss

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., which is celebrated with 3 day weekends, BBQs, and the opening of swimming pools. The true meaning of the holiday, however, is much more somber. It’s a day dedicated to remembering those who died during military service, for honoring their sacrifice and that of their loved ones. For me, personally, it marks the anniversary of my brother’s unexpected death 11 years ago. This year, in the wake of events centering on violence in schools and in my neighborhood, it feels particularly heavy, weighted by the unnecessary loss of life and those who must carry on with broken hearts. 

I intended to write this week about supporting someone with mental health issues to close out Mental Health Awareness month. That’s a worthwhile topic, and one the Peak Mind community asked for. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though, given everything else. 

Instead, I find myself thinking about how we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss. How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

I don’t have the answers for addressing the systemic issues that lead to such horrific tragedies as war and school shootings. I don’t even have all of the answers for how to cope with the fallout of these events or the loss of a loved one or the myriad other bad things that can leave scars on our lives. I do, however, have a knowledge base that sheds some insights, and I’m willing to share some of my own experiences on the off-chance that it helps someone find hope in the darkness. 

Understanding what causes tragedy and trauma

It’s human nature to want the world to make sense. We like nice, neat explanations for events, and we want our cause-and-effect to be linear and straight forward. We like to think that good things happen to good people and that people who do bad things are evil. We like to think that it won’t happen to us and that there is always a clear, easy to understand reason why things happen.

We like to think the world is just and logical. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

When things happen that violate our idea of how the world works, our foundation gets shaken. We desperately need things to make sense again.  

In the aftermath of tragedy, our minds look for an explanation. They want to assign blame. If we can finger point to something that is clearly at fault, better yet if that some one or some thing is evil or greedy or broken or flawed, it restores our sense of balance. It rights the topsy turviness that happened in our worlds. 

The issue is that it may not be that simple. 

The assumptions we make about who is to blame may be faulty or myopic. They may not take into account all of the possible contributing factors. As tempting as it might be to put all of the blame on one person (or group) or one factor, my experience is that it’s rarely that simple. 

We need to understand what happened in a way that allows us to move forward. That likely means that we must expand our thinking and question our assumptions. We must side-step faulty logic that leads to inaccurate or unhelpful conclusions. We must be intentional about meaning making because the story we tell ourselves about what happened, why it happened, and what it means about us, others, and the future will greatly shape our path.  

It’s not black or white

There is a kind of therapy called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that is based on the concept of dialectics, which are two opposing things that are both true.

Dialectics are hard for our minds to navigate because they seem contradictory. Logic holds that if one is true then the other is not. Yet, they both are. The challenge is to simultaneously hold these contradictions and seek the broader truth, the one in which they both exist. We must resist the urge to throw one out in the interest of simplicity. We must resist the EITHER OR and embrace the BOTH AND mentality instead. 

Today, I am embracing the dialectics. I find myself torn between seeing the world as utterly f*ed and seeing the incredible opportunities ahead, between being angered, disgusted, and devastated by the realities that our world is terrible and simultaneously awed and grateful for the wonder of that same reality.

Bad things happen to good people AND there is justice.

People are suffering AND there is beauty in the world.

We are on opposing sides AND we can collaborate.

I will never be the same AND I will find a way to have joy again.

Feel your feelings

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions following a foundation-shaking experience. We may feel sad, angry, guilty, anxious, confused, disgusted, and/or dozens of other ways. We may feel like we are going to be crushed by our pain or feel a strong urge to numb. As difficult as it may be, we must feel our feelings but not wallow in them. We must make space for them but not be buried by them. We will not be able to heal otherwise.

I remember walking in the hospital parking lot with my dad while my brother was on life support. “Do you want a xanax?” he asked me. “No,” I told him. “This is supposed to hurt.” 

I’m not a masochist, but I am a psychologist. I had spent years at that point teaching people how important it is to experience rather than avoid even the most difficult, painful emotions. I am not judging my father for needing a xanax in that moment. I have no idea the magnitude of a parent’s pain in the face of losing a child. I’m not a parent myself. All I know is that I viewed my pain as important. It signaled to me how much I loved my brother and how much my world was being devastated. And in that moment, I had the capacity to hold my pain and weather the storm. In the moments since, I have continued to embrace the pain when it arises, to acknowledge that love and pain are two sides of the same coin, and to use that pain to fuel some of my actions and efforts. 

In the face of personal or collective tragedy, it is important that we feel our emotions, that we heed their message, and that we consider what they are directing us to do. Perhaps that means finding a way to honor our lost loved ones, finding a way to take meaningful action to affect real change, or finding the courage to experience joy again even with the heartache.

Wise mind

One of the concepts I appreciate from DBT is called Wise Mind, which is the overlap of logic and emotions. When we operate from Wise Mind, we acknowledge and feel our feelings but are not ruled by them, and we listen to and are guided by logic but are not irrational, cold, or devoid of feeling. Finding this place of inner wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy or loss is important. Feel your feelings and take their message. Challenge your assumptions and faulty logic, but do let reason guide you. Take your next step with your head AND your heart. 

The choice point

Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he says “Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Modern day psychologists often refer to this as the Choice Point. This is the fork in the road. We do not necessarily get to choose what happens to or around us, but we do get to choose what we do in the face of it. We get to choose who and how we want to be. We may not get to choose what we feel, but we can choose to feel it. We may not have the power to affect the change we want to see in our world, but we can decide to point fingers and play the blame game or we can take meaningful action. We can choose to go down the path of nihilistic despair or the one of growth and strength, if only we have the courage. We can channel our pain into a life that is worth living, even in a world that doesn’t make sense

“Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Victor Frankl
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6 Steps to Combat Overwhelm

We’ve all been there before, feeling stuck and drowning under a sea of to dos and pressures. We feel anxious, stressed, irritable, or even hopeless. Our thoughts are scattered, our bodies are uncomfortable, and we’re not able to take effective action. Here are 6 strategies to help combat overwhelm and stay afloat.

Tips for dealing with overwhelm

1. Get everything down on paper

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our minds often race, bouncing back and forth among all of the things we have to do, the pressures we’re under, the obstacles in our way, and the possible things that could go wrong. A great first step to start to organize the mental clutter and devise a plan for getting on top of everything is to get it all down on paper.  

Take a deep breath and take 5-10 minutes and brain dump onto a sheet of paper. Write down all of the demands, expectations, hurdles, or other factors contributing to your sense of overwhelm. 

2. Pare down and prioritize

Now that you have a list of all of the things on your plate, it’s time to pare down and prioritize. Take a first pass through your list and cross off anything that is a “what if.” What if is a worry, a hypothetical problem to be solved in the future. It doesn’t get addressed now. 

Next, ask yourself the following questions and be honest about the answers. Use those responses to help you cross off additional items and prioritize the remaining ones.

  • Are all of these tasks actually on me to do? 
  • Of those, what do I really have to do?
  • And of those remaining, are these tasks actually important
  • Finally, are these important tasks urgent? Must they be done now?

Take steps to reduce your load, which will reduce your stress and anxiety. Revise your much shortened list so that only urgent, important tasks that absolutely must be done by you remain, and rank those tasks according to how critical they are to the big picture. Instead of feeling stressed about this “to do” list let it instead make you feel organized. 

3. Make a plan

Oftentimes, when we feel overwhelmed, we spend a lot of time with our thoughts swirling around all of the things stressing us out…and very little time actually taking action steps toward addressing those things in a lasting way. So, once you’ve pared down and prioritized, it’s time to make a concrete plan including what you will do and when you will do it. 

Schedule tasks into your day, but be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any given day. It’s important for your mental health to also make time for self-care, rest, eating, moving, connecting, working, play, and sleeping – all of the things that a human being needs to be healthy and happy. If you do not prioritize your self-care, you’ll never stop feeling overwhelmed because you won’t have the energy levels to do what you need to.

4. Break it way down

Sometimes we know what needs to be done and can even outline a plan, but the plan itself feels daunting. Maybe it’s wrapped up in an anxiety-provoking situation, we’re not sure about our abilities to do it, or we’re dreading it because it’s hard or boring. Whatever the reason, a helpful strategy is to break any overwhelming plan down into smaller steps. You’ve likely heard that before, so here’s the kicker. Break it down, then break those steps down even smaller. Keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until the next step seems absolutely doable. 

Here’s an example: I have to create a Powerpoint presentation for a speaking event I’m nervous about. I know the general plan is:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Map out the key points
  3. Create slides

But let’s say that still feels overwhelming, and I find myself spinning out or stalling. Instead, I might break it way down and use the helpful phrase: “All I have to do next is…” On a really granular level, this might look like: “All I have to do next is open my laptop.” “All I have to do next is open a document.” “All I have to do next is brainstorm some possible topics. I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes and just write down any possible ideas.” And so on. 

5. Get started right away

Procrastination is a common response when we’re faced with anything we find anxiety-provoking, hard, or boring. You’ll notice, though, that procrastination isn’t actually an effective strategy for reducing overwhelm and stress. While you get to avoid the task in question for a period, the psychological weight of it remains. Studies show this actually increases your stress. You’re not actually relaxed. In fact, you may even be adding guilt or dread or anxiety to the mix. Moreover, as you procrastinate, other things are pilling up, and your initial overwhelm grows. 

Procrastination is a complex habit, but working on your ability to get started quickly is a great way to start to break it. Any number of strategies might help you get started right away. Try these out and see what works for you. Remember, the first step is often the hardest. You just have to get going.

  1. Set a timer for a really small chunk of time. Tell yourself you only have to work until the timer goes off. Sometimes, that makes getting started seem a little easier. Practice some breathing exercises to get in the right headspace. 
  2. Practice “3, 2, 1, Go!” Anytime you find yourself with any urge to avoid or delay a task, practice a quick count down then take a step. Repeatedly doing this will help you build that mental muscle of diving right in, and that’s a really useful skill to master. 
  3. Make a deal with yourself. You can use rewards or consequences to help boost your motivation. Treat yourself to something you enjoy if you get started quickly or enforce a punishment (e.g., do something you don’t enjoy doing, deny yourself something you like, donate to an organization you despise – just any unpleasant, aversive thing that you like less than getting started on a hard task) for procrastinating. 

6. Be a good coach for yourself

When we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, our minds tend to chatter quite loudly. We have thoughts like “I can’t do this!” “It’s too much!” and those thoughts are like mental ankle weights, weighing us down, requiring more time and energy for each step. Instead, it’s important that we make a point of being good coaches for ourselves. 

While we can’t necessarily stop those heavy, stressful thoughts from coming, we can intentionally use self-talk to bolster and support ourselves. Saying things like “You can do this. You always get through it” won’t take the stressors away but will help you feel more capable of handling them. After all, your track record for getting through hard things is 100%. You absolutely CAN do this.

Get a handle on stress for good 

Having an effective plan for managing stress and overwhelm on an ongoing basis is critical. After all, stress is an unavoidable part of life! In honor of Stress Awareness month, we’ve made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community. In addition, through this link only, you can also get our Self-Care [by Design] Mini-Course for only $10. That’s $19 off the regular price! Research shows your approach to stress management and self-care should be effective and personalized. You are unique and your self-care plan needs to be, too. Give yourself the gift of building psychological strength and transforming your life experience

“Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.”
—Tyler Knott Gregson
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Stress Together: Social Support Protects Against Stress

I was thrilled a few years ago when M, my college roommate, decided to move to Kansas City. I loved the idea of having my oldest and closest friend within walking distance after years of being several states away. Sadly, this weekend is her last in KC. As conflicted as I am about her move (selfishly, I want her to stay. As her friend, I believe this is right for her, and I’m excited for her new adventure), I know she is stressed. Packing and preparing for a move is no small task…even when you think it will be…which is why I volunteered to help.

“You don’t have to help me pack and clean,” she said. “Uh huh. Where’s the tape?” I asked. Packing isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s a lot like 3D Tetris, which I happen to be surprisingly good at it. As we wrapped up that day, she was thankful and seemed a bit relieved, and it felt good to me to be able to support her and help in a very real way.

Share the load: Social support reduces stress

Did you know that social support is one of the biggest protective factors against stress? Having people who care there to lend a listening ear or a helping hand is invaluable during tough times. Not only do we feel cared for and less alone, which reduces stress, but social support also boosts our resilience (our ability to adapt in the face of adversity and bounce back from hardships). What’s more, having a social support network also impacts our stress response on a physical level by settling down some of our body’s reactions to stress. It’s no secret that reducing your stress level not only improves mental health, but also your physical health. The effects of stress run deep, so prioritizing stress relief and eliminating stressful situations by leaning on your social support network greatly improves your life. 

It’s not just receiving social support that helps us feel less stressed. Giving support does, too! It’s a similar situation, though, in that giving support not only feels good emotionally, but it also seems to have a calming effect on our body’s stress response. This is just one of the many health benefits of deepening our social support network and enriching social connection and social relationships. 

Types of social support

Social support during times of stress can take different forms. Often, we think about emotional support – someone being there for us, listening, sitting in the ick with us, expressing care, and being on our side. It’s a powerful thing to feel emotionally supported during times of stress, and that sense of connection buffers us against the multifaceted stress response.

Sometimes, however, what we need to give or get from our support system is instrumental support. We need concrete help alleviating the burden, whether that’s helping a friend pack, offering childcare, providing financial support, going to a doctor’s appointment, or making a meal. This type of support helps reduce or remove the source of stress. We are inherently social creatures designed to live in a connected community. We are not meant to be fully independent, and it’s not a weakness or a fail to need help sometimes. Life is hard. We’re human, and we need help.

Isolation and stress

We are literally wired for human connection. Yet, when we are struggling internally, many of us instinctively withdraw. We go further inward, pulling away from others. We don’t feel like socializing or being around loved ones.

We may worry about the impact our burdens will have on our loved ones. Concerns about weighing them down, making them worry, or bringing them down by not being fun or happy can all push us toward withdrawal as well. That’s unfortunate because doing so prevents us from using one of our best stress management tools and deprives them of that benefit as well. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a hard day or feeling stressed out, lighten the load and let a friend, family or community member, or a co-worker be there to support you. It’s good for you both.

The wrong kind of social support

When it comes to receiving and giving social support in the face of stress, I want to call out two pitfalls to be wary of: venting and invalidation.

Venting isn’t always a good thing

It can feel good to vent to someone about the things stressing us out, but it you pay close attention, you’ll realize that venting isn’t always that helpful. Rumination is a nasty mental habit of looping endlessly on the same, typically negative thoughts, and venting often turns into ruminating out loud. When you rehash the same territory again and again, without a resolution or new insights, you’ve crossed into unhelpful venting. While it may on some level feel nice to share your frustrations with another person, especially if they agree with you, you’ll likely notice that your emotional landscape is anger, stress, worry, or sadness. You’re unnecessarily feeling the same things all over again, like stoking a fire that needs to die out.

Keep in the mind the difference between processing (making sense out of a situation and your reaction), problem-solving (coming up with a feasible solution to change or address the situation), and venting (rehashing and complaining repeatedly). Spend your time and energy on the first two and skip the latter.

Invalidation

Validation is an important relationship skill that involves recognizing and affirming another’s emotional experience. Invalidation, on the other hand, takes the form of denying, dismissing, or rejecting their emotional experience. It is a sneakily damaging thing that negatively impacts our nervous systems and erodes relationships and trust over time.

While some people intentionally use invalidation as a tool to manipulate, most people are well-intentioned and don’t even realize that they are being invalidating.

In an effort to help others feel better, we say accidentally invalidating things that actually hurt more than help. These kinds of statements come from a good place, our desire to help them feel better, alleviate some of their burden, or help them navigate a difficult situation. Unfortunately, they tend to feel dismissive, rejecting, or denying. Keep an eye out for comments like these common responses:

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “But at least…” (Finding the bright side can be quite a helpful strategy at times but not others.)
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Don’t be sad/anxious/embarrassed.”
  • “I don’t know why that bothers you so much.”
  • “You shouldn’t let that get you down.”

Instead, try reflecting back their feelings. Acknowledging another’s emotional experience does not mean you agree with it. It just means you see them and you understand them. Try something like “I can see how stressed you are” or “That sounds really tough” or (my personal favorite) “Of course you feel ____! That makes sense.” Once you’ve validated and offered support, you can shift into problem-solving or letting go or whatever the next step needs to be.

Strengthen your important relationships

Strong healthy relationships are important for more reasons that just managing stress, so it’s well worth the effort to develop effective relationship skills. In fact, relationships is one of the key elements of psychological strength. The next Peak Mind Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop is coming up on Tuesday April 12, 2022 and we’re focusing on communication styles. This workshop will help you understand your own communication style and characteristic ways of relating to others. It will also help you better understand important people in your life and gain more effective ways of communicating and connecting with them.

Develop a comprehensive personalized stress management plan

Last week, we made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community for the first time, and many of you took quick action to get a handle on stress. Kudos to you! If you haven’t yet, now is the time to redefine your relationship with stress and learn to navigate it with ease. Through this link only, you can get the Stress Management Mini-Course AND add Self-Care [by Design], our most popular course, for only $10. 

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
 – Fred Rogers
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Handle Stress Better: It’s Not All Bad

The end of my first semester in graduate school was probably the most stressed out I have ever been. It was finals week, and I had a ton of writing assignments due within an 18 hour window. Did I work ahead and plan my time out accordingly? No! Of course not! My best friend and I watched Beaches (so we’d have an excuse to cry) then hit the library afterward, leaving us less than 24 hours to write a 15 page paper and a few 3-4 page ones. Our plan was to rely on Dr. Pepper and adrenaline to write all night. As you can imagine…it did not go well.

At 5 a.m., I found my way-over-caffeinated-beyond-stressed-out-in-desperate-need-of-sleep self in the bathtub trying to relax enough so I could finish those papers. I seriously thought I was having an aneurysm. It was terrible. Somehow, I got it all done by the deadline, but I was a wreck, completely convinced I wasn’t cut out for graduate school or being a psychologist. I even called the school district in my hometown to find out if I could become a teacher instead. Fortunately, they never called me back, and I got to recoup over the holiday break. That experience taught me some hard-won lessons, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten near that level of stressed out again. Thank goodness because that really sucked.

Is Stress Bad?

After that little gem I just shared, you might expect me to answer with a resounding YES! And you might say the same thing. It seems that we’ve been taught to think of stress as a bad thing to be avoided, and that’s problematic for a few reasons. One, stress is unavoidable. Absolutely and completely unavoidable. Any demand for your time, attention, or energy is going to cause some measure of stress. So even if you withdraw from life completely – no work, no relationships, no nothing – you’re still going to get hungry, and that requires your time, attention, and energy to resolve. Viola, stress! Albeit, that would likely register as a very minor amount of stress (assuming you have ready access to food). Still, the idea that we can avoid stress is faulty because it just isn’t possible. 

The notion that we should avoid stress because it is harmful or bad for us is also faulty, but it’s a little more complicated. Yes, stress can be quite harmful for us, when it is chronic and poorly managed. That caveat is an important one, so keep it in mind. 

Unchecked, chronic stress can lead to all kinds of health issues and even premature death. It affects the quality of our minds, making them more negative and less effective problem-solvers. Stress can impact our moods and turn us into snappy unpleasant people to be around. All considered, chronic poorly managed stress has a negative impact on virtually every area of our lives and functioning. 

But Stress Can Be Good for You

Here’s the interesting thing to consider…stress can actually be good for us under the right circumstances. 

My little brother and Dr. April, my co-founder here at Peak Mind, have something in common. They both lift weights. Not like I do, taking a strength class here and there, working enough to be a little sore. They lift heavy. They intentionally put their muscles under a lot of stress to hold that heavy burden, causing tiny tears and microtraumas in the tissue…and that is absolutely necessary for building muscle mass and increasing strength. Our muscles must be taxed – they must be stressed – to get stronger. 

It’s not just our muscles that benefit from being stressed, though. A growing body of research suggests that other stressful conditions such as cold and hunger (e.g., intermittent fasting) can have a positive impact on our bodies and brains as well, triggering biological responses that help optimize our DNA.

Other Benefits of Stress

Beyond the increases in strength and health that can come from taxing our bodies, stress can be good for us psychologically as well. Consider the hero from your favorite action or fantasy movie. Did they have an easy, stress-free life? Doubtful! The journey for most heroes includes adversity and challenge, which they learn from and overcome, and it often becomes the source of their strength or power. We are no different. By overcoming challenge (aka stressful situations), we can build mental toughness, resilience, and find wells of inner strength we did not know we had.

How to Handle Stress Better 

Whether stress is good or bad for you depends on a few factors like how much stress you’re experiencing at any given point in time (stress compounds – it adds up), how much stress you can handle (your psychological strength and stress management skills), and your mindset (turns out, believing that stress can be good for you can make it so). You may or may not be able to control how much stress life throws at you at any given moment, but you can definitely do something about the last two factors. Rethinking your relationship with stress and taking intentional action to improve your ability to manage stress is critical. After all, stress is an inevitable part of life. It’s time to develop the tools, skills, and mindset necessary to prevent those freaking-out-in-the-bathtub stressed out moments.  

In honor of this being Stress Awareness month, we are making our Stress Management mini-course available for the first time. This little powerhouse of a product will help you redefine your relationship with stress and learn to manage it skillfully, transforming your experience when under pressure. This mini-course is multi-faceted to help you learn and grow more. You’ll get:

  • A short educational video
  • A beautifully designed digital workbook that includes additional information and 6 hands on exercises to help increase your awareness and understanding of your stress response and develop your own personalized stress management plan
  • A 2 week email challenge that will introduce you to a wide range of stress management strategies and tips
  • 3 in the moment tools to use any time you feel stressed, tense, or are having a difficult time

In addition, only through this link, you can get our popular Self-Care [by Design] mini-course for only $10 (normally $29) when you bundle the two courses.

Remember, stress is inevitable. Being stressed out is optional.

“You cannot remove struggle from life, but you can improve your ability to handle challenge.”
– James Clear
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Affective Forecasting: Your Psychological Immune System

Two weeks ago, I went to Minneapolis to see Dr. April (my co-founder here at Peak Mind), work on some new super exciting projects, and catch up. While we regularly meet virtually, we hadn’t been in a room together in a pandemic. It was SO GOOD to be there and to spend time with her and her family. 

April’s kids are awesome little humans! As is common with little ones, though, her youngest got a nasty cold while I was there. Now, I haven’t been around a sick person in two years and have managed to not get sick myself in that time frame (knock on wood). So when I was hanging out in the dress up nook (read that as close quarters) and her youngest, who was talking to me, started coughing, I just knew I was going to get sick. There was no way I wasn’t inhaling her germs. I immediately pictured the glares I’d get from everyone flying home with a cough. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I never got sick. Not a sniffle, not a cough. Nothing. Thank goodness for immune systems! 

We are fortunate that our immune systems don’t just protect us from invading viruses and bacteria. What most people don’t know is that we also have a naturally built in psychological immune system of sorts. Our minds work hard to help us recover from events that throw us off balance. We just tend to underestimate their effectiveness.

Affective Forecasting

As humans, we like to predict things. In this case, we like to predict how we will react to future events or certain circumstances. For example, we anticipate how our emotional state we will be when we lose a job/have conflict in a relationship/miss a goal/etc. or how happy we will be when we get that raise/lose that weight/get that recognition/etc. 

We try to forecast the future and our emotional reaction to uncertain events. This is called affective forecasting (forecasting or predicting our feelings, or affect if you’re a psychologist). 

The kicker is…we’re TERRIBLE at it. 

We consistently suffer from affective forecasting errors, projection bias, and we make mistakes in our predictions. Or, put bluntly, we’re just wrong. While we are generally pretty accurate at predicting the tone of how we’ll feel (that is, positive or negative emotional impact) and perhaps even the specific feelings we’ll have, we are pretty bad at predicting future emotional intensity and duration of our emotions. 

 In other words, we overestimate how good or bad we’ll feel and how long those feelings will last. We think these events will have a bigger impact on our emotional wellbeing than they actually do. We don’t take into account our psychological immune system and how it will help restore equilibrium. 

I’m sure you can come up with all kinds of examples from your own life. How often have you found yourself thinking, “That wasn’t as bad as I expected” or recovering from the heartbreak you thought would last forever?

In case your own lived experience doesn’t demonstrate this point, we can turn to tons of research. Study after study has shown that people return to their baseline levels of happiness after a number of seemingly impactful events, everything from getting tenure to winning the lottery to testing positive for HIV to getting dumped. Because of our cognitive biases, we predict that these events will have long-lasting impacts of a future emotional state…but they just don’t. 

Now, I can understand that this information may not make that much difference for you at this very moment. But think about it. How much do you worry about your future affective states? How much do you pursue or avoid things on the basis that you just know it’s going to dramatically affect your future happiness or misery? For me, I used to worry a lot about losing my vision because, deep down, I was scared (and convinced) that I would be miserable if that happened (I have a degenerative retinal condition, so it’s not a hypothetical fear).

Then, I came across affective forecasting research and even a specific study showing that sighted and blind people have similar levels of happiness. While my mind told me vision loss would be devastating forever, science shows that my psychological immune system will kick in, and I’ll be ok if it happens. I find solace in this. I choose to trust science…and myself…over my mind’s predictions. Recognizing that things will likely not be as bad or uncomfortable as anticipated – or if they are that it won’t last forever – opens the door to take courageous actions and to let go of some worry. What would it be like for you if you trusted, too?

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.”
– Daniel Gilbert
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Peak Mind Pro: The Power of Active Listening

Think back to a situation at work that did not go well. Perhaps it was an interaction with a colleague, a poor decision, or a costly mistake. What factors contributed to that situation? 

Have you considered listening as a factor? If everyone involved had truly been listening – to each other, to the information being conveyed, to the company’s goals or needs – would the outcome have been any different? 

Why We Don’t Listen

Listening is, arguably, the most important communication skill and is a cornerstone of most business activities, regardless of industry. Unfortunately, most people aren’t naturally great at listening. We get caught up in multitasking, so our attention is divided, all but ensuring we miss out on some critical aspects of the message. Or we jump to conclusions or interpretations that might be inaccurate, then react on the basis of misinformation. Alternatively, we might focus on our response, how to convey our points or press our agenda forward, bypassing the fundamental step of understanding. Ultimately, we want to speak, to be heard, and we often gloss over this crucial first step of effective communication: listening. 

That’s too bad because being an effective listener gives you a competitive edge, regardless of your organizational role.

Active Listening

So what does it mean to be a great listener?  It isn’t necessarily an innate talent. Rather, being a great listener means that you have mastered the skill of active listening, which essentially includes 3 main active listening techniques:

1. Pay attention. 

Multitasking or splitting attention is a myth. Trying to do so will result in you missing out on a significant chunk of information being conveyed verbally or non-verbally. 

2. Convey that you are listening.

Demonstrate that you are fully engaged by using body language, nodding, making small verbalizations (e.g., “Uh, huh,” “I see”), responsive facial expressions, or asking open-ended questions for elaboration.

3. Focus on comprehending the message as intended.

Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. This also means suspending judgments initially. Clarify your understanding to ensure accuracy before you move on to responding. 

The Benefits of Effective & Active Listening

The benefits of active listening are multifaceted. At a minimum, being a good listener means that you will capture and retain more of the crucial information, which can increase productivity and facilitate better performance on projects. It also means that you will have more accurate and robust information to consider when making decisions, potentially improving the quality and outcomes of those decisions. Thus ultimately making your conversation partner feel heard and building trust with them. 

In addition, active listening skills strengthen relationships. By paying full attention to another person and ensuring that you are understanding their message as intended, you are communicating several key messages such as “I value you and what you have to say” and that “you can trust me to understand and cooperate with you.” Practicing active listening helps with problem solving. In contrast, consider times when you’ve tried to talk to someone who was distracted by their phone or email or something else, nodded mindlessly, or cut in to respond without actually understanding what you were saying. You likely felt frustrated, dismissed, or devalued in some way. 

Effective and active listening can help cut down on miscommunication and the conflict or subpar performance that can follow. Furthermore, it enhances your influence and ability to persuade or negotiate. The most persuasive people and successful negotiators start by truly seeing the other’s perspective, then guiding them to a new one. Understanding that perspective starts with listening.

Taken all together, active listening is a soft skill that can have a substantial impact on your performance across the board.

Tips to Try

Active listening is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to master it. Implement these helpful strategies and notice what impact doing so has on you, your teams, and your organization.

Pay Full Attention:

  • Make eye contact.
  • Put down your phone.
  • If you must use a device to take notes, tell the other person. Say something like, “I want to be sure I capture the important points, so I’m going to take some notes.” Spelling it out directly lets them know that you are still fully engaged, not somewhere else mentally. 

Fact Check:

  • Before you respond with your opinion, ideas, or retorts, make sure you have an accurate understanding. 
  • Paraphrase their take home points. Rather than verbatim stating what they just said, rephrase it in your own words. Start with a phrase like, “Let me make sure I’m understanding correctly. Are you saying…?” or “What I’m hearing you say is…”
  • If you notice that you start to get upset by something you are hearing, this is a powerful signal that you need to fact check. It is quite possible that there is a bit of miscommunication happening, and strong emotions cloud our ability to think logically, process new information, and make effective decisions. 
“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
– Roy T. Bennett