Why is it so hard to walk away?

Last week one of my nephews was amusing himself by jumping up and down on his dog’s squeaky chew toy. *Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak…*

His mother asked him to stop.

He did, for a few seconds, and then started again. *Squeak, squeak, squeak…*

Again, his mother asked him to stop.

He stepped off the toy, but then touched it with his toes.

“Just walk away from it!” his mother snapped. “Just turn around and walk away!”

He turned away from the chew toy, then back to it, then away again, the struggle visible. Finally he laughed a little and walked away. His mother nudged the chew toy to the other side of the room.

Watching this, I thought, Why is it so hard to walk away? Children on average have poorer impulse control than adults, but I’m also thinking of how many Serious Adult Problems can be avoided or at least mitigated if we were better able to literally walk away from something that’s bad for us or for other people. Turn around and walk away from the dessert table at the buffet, from the convenience store where we buy cigarettes, from the person who’s spoiling for a fight, from the person who lied to us and defrauded us before, from the long T.V. lineup or unending stream of websites that we’ve been hooked on for long sedentary hours, etc. etc.

Make it a habit, as hard as it is initially, to turn around and walk away. Easier said than done, I know. That first moment is the hardest – the moment you have to first stop, get up or turn around; it’s so hard that most of the time we don’t attempt it, even if we know it’s good for us to walk away, whether to take a necessary break or to avoid something or someone completely. But once the action is initiated, it becomes easier to follow through. And with enough repetition maybe that first moment, in which we catch ourselves and change direction, gets easier.

Keeping resolutions

Keeping a resolution is difficult in part because the act of making a resolution gives you the false sense that you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You’ve stated what you want to do, you’ve shown some degree of self-awareness, dedication to improvement, and strength… and I think this gives you a false sense of security. You can do whatever it is you’ve set out to do because you’ve said as much – you’ve written it down on paper or whispered it to yourself at midnight. You’re set, you think. You’re going to do it.

Only you don’t. Sometimes you don’t do anything beyond making the resolution; you forget about it completely or you put it off for too long, and then it starts to seem too troublesome, stupid or hopeless. Other times you get to work on it but slump back into your old ways before long and give up.

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I’ve set down resolutions before, and given up on them. Other times I kept to them and succeeded (or more accurately I am succeeding, because success has been a matter of changing various habits, and it’s an ongoing process and struggle instead of a fixed end-state). For me the successes are marked with these qualities:

I have a stake in the outcome
Giving up needs to matter. Maybe I’ll lose dignity, self-respect, money, esteem in the eyes of other people. Maybe I made a promise that would hurt to go back on. Something needs to be at stake. Beyond that, I need the will and conviction to follow through on the resolution. I need to feel that what I’m doing is right and necessary. Is it important to me? Really, truly?

I keep it realistic, concrete and specific
The resolution can’t be far-fetched and impossible to undertake. It can’t be couched as something like “I will adopt a healthier lifestyle” or “I will be a better person.” Those are admirable goals but they’re too abstract to work with on a practical level. So I need to get down to the practical details: list a few ways in which I can be better, and what’s required to accomplish those.

I don’t try to make too many changes all at once
Too much all at once might be overwhelming. Making change gradually also helps me evaluate my progress and adjust expectations or goals.

I make it a habit
Changes to thoughts and behavior are lasting when they become habitual. They replace older more detrimental habits that take time, persistence and vigilance to undo.

I’m aware of potential self-sabotage
As damaging as old habits may be, they’re tempting to fall back on. There can be something strangely comforting about misery if it’s familiar. And change is difficult and scary. So I might try to trip myself up by setting unrealistic goals and expectations that I’ll fall short of. I let the smallest setback make me skittish. I assume an all-or-nothing attitude that demands perfect progress and a 100% success rate and otherwise condemns my efforts as hopeless and worth giving up on. Success doesn’t mean perfection (repeat to self, ad infinitum: success isn’t the same as perfection). Failures and setbacks along the way are ripe opportunities for excuses – excuses to give up and sink back into the familiar unfulfilled and unfulfilling life, narrow and comforting as it is. I can backslide completely, wallow for a while, and then make new resolutions that I won’t follow up on. I don’t reach out to other people when I need to. All of this is self-sabotage.

UPDATE: Ongoing resolutions that I’m dedicated to (written here in a general way, and not with the concrete actions/steps associated with each).

If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…

I can’t speak for every situation, but at least some of these points will ring true to you if you’ve felt the effects of emotional abuse.

You aren’t meant to be your own person

In an emotionally abusive relationship, you become defined by how your abuser sees you and how you serve his or her needs. Your own hopes, dreams, hobbies, aspirations, needs, etc. are secondary or non-existent. The abuser knows what you need (knows you better than you know yourself). They know what you like and don’t like. They know what you are. Without them you won’t survive – that’s what they want you to believe. Without them you’re nothing. Who else would bother with you and look twice at you? Only them.

In various ways your life is subsumed by their behavior, moods, and demands. If they’re your parents for example they might want to make you entirely a reflection of themselves or their cherished ideals; your dreams are supplanted by theirs, and when you resist you meet with harsh consequences. Children become mere extensions of the parent, molded exactly to parental specifications, occasionally polished like a trophy when they succeed in pleasing but otherwise subjected to a barrage of negativity meant to fit them into a rigid mold, irrespective of who the child is as an individual.

Other times children become an item the parents have checked off on life’s to-do list. Great, we have a kid. Let’s give it some food, clothes, and video games to occupy itself with and turn our attention elsewhere. If it seems to need something more it’s just being a nuisance.

Or the kid becomes a punching bag for the parent. Parents see in the kid qualities they despise in themselves and go in for repeated attacks. It could also be that the parents need to feel powerful, or they feel threatened when something’s out of their control (other people’s independent minds are a source of potential upset and frightening variability); inside they may be hurt and angry and trying to defend their own wounded selves by lashing out. Maybe they’re imitating behaviors dished out to them by their own parents. Regardless of the reason, they don’t stop and think about the effect it’s having; they don’t stop and try to really see what’s going on with their own kids. Maybe they don’t care.

The abuse manifests in multiple ways and can stem from any number of reasons, but the bottom line is, you’re not treated as your own person, which means of course that you don’t receive the respect accorded to a human being. Emotional abuse cuts you down and undermines your sense of self and your feelings of worth as a person. You’re diminished, a lesser humanoid, a projection of the abuser’s mind, a means to an end, plaything, a servant, a yes-man, a pawn, a possession, an inconvenience, a convenient scapegoat, an enemy and threat, a stand-in for something or someone else, or an extra appendage or extension of the abuser (or all of these things, at various points). Whatever it is they want you to be, you’re not fully you.

You aren’t supposed to exist outside of the reality of the abuser – how they define you and what they’ve made of you in their own mind. Think of how they react when you try to break out of their reality…

Your perceptions of reality are by default invalid

Abusers are great at caging you in their version of reality. They’re adept at rewriting reality to suit themselves and protect themselves from accountability. When you say that something happened, they say it didn’t, and that’s that. When you remember that in the middle of an argument you were angry but in control, raising your voice a little but otherwise in possession of your temper, they’ll tell you you were harsh, screaming, over-the-top, rude, disrespectful, etc. etc. (they’ll rarely or never remember any such thing about themselves though).

If you’re feeling a certain way they’ll tell you that it can’t be true. You really aren’t angry. You really aren’t hurt. What you are is sensitive/ungrateful/irrational, etc. Nothing is ever as bad as you say it is. Things usually don’t happen the way you remember them. The abuser is the final authority on what’s real and what isn’t, including your innermost thoughts and emotions.

Another possibility is that they do acknowledge your emotions or thoughts, but then tell you exactly why you’re feeling or thinking that way – because of some personal defect, or because you’ve been brainwashed by someone (hanging out with the “wrong people” who’ve planted “wrong ideas” in your head) or it’s some other external cause, anything but the abuser. It doesn’t matter what you say the cause is. Your explanations are automatically dismissed.

It isn’t long before you’re lost in self-doubt. It didn’t really happen that way, did it? Maybe I really am exaggerating. It couldn’t have been so bad. I’m a bad person for feeling this way. Other people may seem to confirm what your abuser is telling you (they might not know the whole story or may be inclined to believe your abuser over you for whatever reason, or they might not want to ‘stir up trouble’ or ‘make an issue’ out of it).

Remember also that abusive people don’t have to behave badly all the time. In fact some of them are well-intentioned; in their own eyes they’re doing what’s right, and they sincerely believe that you’re making life more difficult for them and for yourself by not changing who you are and what you do. You can have really good times with an abusive person – fun times, laughter – and they may behave helpfully in some respects. They can tell you they love you, and maybe they really mean it, at least in their understanding of what love is; you might love them very much in return. You may perceive their insecurities and troubles and feel bad for them. There are definitely people who abuse with deliberate malice and evil, and one weapon in their arsenal may indeed be to gaslight you. But abusers don’t have to act with consistent, deliberate malice in order to abuse.

So maybe you think they have a point, and you’re the unreasonable one; or you feel that you can stand to be even more accommodating than you already are. If it’s a little odd that you’re usually or always wrong while they’re always in the right, well, it’s just another sign that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You start to doubt your own judgment, perceptions, and emotions. Perhaps you question your sanity. You lose trust in yourself.

It also doesn’t help that you can’t fully account for what they do. They might blow up sometimes and remain calm on other occasions. They might threaten you or be cold or indifferent to you in the morning and in the evening behave in a warm and friendly way as if nothing had ever happened. No apologies or explanations. Maybe they tell you you’re forgiven. What a relief. The storm is over. It wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, right?

You’re entirely responsible for their emotions and behaviors

If they blow up in your face, criticize you relentlessly or lapse into an exaggeratedly dark and terrible mood, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have said or done XYZ, however minor it is; you shouldn’t be the way you are. If you’d only change and be perfect at all times, everything would be fine.

What happens if you internalize this attitude? In addition to the pain your abuser inflicts on you, you’ll also experience the pain you inflict on yourself as you put most or all of the blame on your own shoulders, second-guess what you did, wonder what you could have done differently, spend time wishing you could be better, and perhaps come to despise yourself for being such a deficient person. You’ll feel guilty. Nothing like a good strong dose of guilt to corrode your thoughts about yourself. In fact after a certain point you might live in a state of perpetual guilt. Why can’t I be as good and worthy as they want me to be?

You might make excuses for them: they work so hard or do so much/they must have a personality disorder/they’re hurting themselves too/they’re damaged inside/you know that there’s good in them and they’re trying, really, it’s not as if they’re like that all the time… and so forth and so on. The excuses keep you focused on them and what they might be thinking and how you can predict what they’ll do, while you ignore your own long-term well-being. If the relationship remains in its current abusive state, you’ll have to keep contorting yourself and tiptoeing around them so that you don’t make them do the bad things they’re prone to doing. Because it’s all your fault, isn’t it? If you feel drained, angry and stressed from having to deal with their behaviors, it’s your fault for not being a better person to begin with.

They refuse to acknowledge that they give you pain

Even as they tell you that you’re responsible for their every angry flare-up, critical attack, or low mood, they refuse to acknowledge that they have any negative impact on you whatsoever. If their speech or behavior hurts you – if in response you’re sad/angry/stressed out or wish to avoid them – it’s because you’re deficient in some way. They’ll tell you you’re too sensitive or have poor control over yourself. That you’re foolish or irrational and tend to overreact. The best is when they sincerely believe (or profess to believe) in their own good intentions and tell you that you lack the wisdom and maturity to see how beneficial their relentless criticism or other corrective measures are. Everything they do is GOOD and RIGHT. Why can’t you appreciate that? What is wrong with you? they say. Everything, you reply. Everything is wrong with me; haven’t you always told me so?

You’re manipulated and controlled

What you wear, how you look, what you do, who you hang out with, what you believe in, what you are in your entirety… everything is up for grabs.

The control they exercise can be violent and aggressive, but not necessarily in a physical way; for instance, an abuser could scream at you or relentlessly pick on you or humiliate you to get you to change or to keep you in line.

Abusers may also be passive-aggressive, giving you the cold shoulder or silent treatment, or becoming deeply despondent or emotionally volatile every time you do something they don’t want you to do. (Remember, you’re supposed to be in charge of their every emotion!) They convey to you that you’ve deeply deeply disappointed them. (Your response? GUILT. Lots and lots of guilt.) Even if you aren’t doing something they disapprove of, they may want to throw you off balance by behaving as if you’ve gravely wounded or offended them. (Remember, you’re supposed to be doubting yourself and your perceptions of reality!) Inconsistent behaviors, rules and expectations are also great for keeping you off-balance and keeping your mind on the abuser and how to anticipate what they’ll do next.

They might make threatening pronouncements: “You’d better not do that, or else!” The retribution they threaten might come from their own actions, or it could be the promise of some general disaster in your life (“if you do that, you’ll fail out of school and no one will love you and ten lightning bolts will hit you on the way home, mark my words!”) Fear is potent. Fear is the friend of an abuser. Anything to make you meek, nervous, jumpy and stressed. You might be unhappy with the abuser, but the wider world is so much more scary, right?

When it comes to parent-child relationships people say, “Aren’t parents supposed to control their kids?” Well, what do you mean by that? Ideally, parents want their kids to grow up to be good, non-abusive people. They want their kids to be well-functioning, able to take care of themselves and possessed of resources (including important emotional and mental resources) that will help them handle life’s challenges. They want their kids to be healthy, happy and fulfilled. Do parents sometimes need to discipline their kids? Sure. Do they have to set some boundaries? Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily make a parent controlling. What are some signs of controlling parents?

  • They might need their kids to be a certain way (to love the same things the parent loves, to be the parent’s best friend/confidant(e)/pawn, to be a good little scapegoat, etc.) or turn out a very specific way, regardless of what the children’s individual inclinations are (you’re going to be a business executive or die trying! You’re going to get married by the time you hit 25, or else!)
  • They don’t stop at setting some reasonable boundaries for behavior, but police the minutiae: exactly how the child spends their time, exactly what they wear to school every day, exactly who they spend time with… they do their best to deny their children any meaningful choices or respond negatively to any choices their children do make.
  • They infantilize the child. They do things like tie their child’s shoelaces, help them wash their hair, help them get dressed etc. past an age when a child would require such assistance. A nine year old is treated like a five year old. A sixteen year old is treated like a nine year old. No gradual increase of responsibilities, privileges and overall independence. Remember, the child isn’t supposed to really grow into a separate human being. They can also mess with the child’s head by treating them in an infantile fashion in some ways but making adult demands on them in other ways.
  • They try not to let the child get too close to other people, including other adults who might be parental surrogates or other children who are potential friends. Other people may introduce a different reality than the one the abuser is trying to cage the child inside. (You see this in adults who are abused too – their abuser may hate it if they get too close to others or have any other meaningful relationships at all in life.)

You regularly feel two inches tall

An emotionally abusive person doesn’t have to do all of the following things; even a couple of these tactics, used regularly over time, can wear you down:

  • Neglect and dismissal. They ignore your needs, and dismiss what’s important to you. They might not even notice you’re around. Your triumphs and disappointments mean little to them. You’re there only when they feel like noticing you or require something from you that will satisfy their own needs. Sometimes the attitude of neglect is more pronounced – a deliberate cold shoulder or silent treatment or pointedly turning away from you when you enter a room. They might regularly talk over you when you try to be heard.
  • Relentless put downs and criticism. There are so many kinds. Cutting remarks, insults, sarcastic glee, compliments delivered in a patently insincere or backhanded way, a running commentary about your deficiencies, regular use of hyperbole (e.g. various aspects of your appearance, behavior or overall self are deemed the “worst ever” or exaggeratedly horrible), heavy doses of “advice” that repeatedly highlight your shortcomings. The put-downs don’t have to be verbal: facial expressions and body language eloquent of disgust, distaste, disappointment, anger, or dismissal also do the trick.
  • Humiliation. Forget feeling two inches tall, why not feel like nothing? They exploit your vulnerabilities, push you towards tears and blind insensible pain, and subject you to degrading circumstances. When done in front of other people, one effect this has is to convince you that you’re small in everyone’s eyes. Everyone is a witness to your profound defects. Everyone is laughing at you or repelled by you.
  • Constant comparisons to others. Why can’t you be more like someone else: a sibling, your best friend, a work colleague, or an abuser’s former spouse or romantic partner? Look at how they do things; they never screw up or have a bad day or look less than stellar. If only you weren’t you. (This tactic is great by the way at fostering resentment between you and other people – between family members and friends and co-workers. The resentment can distance you from those other people, putting you more firmly in the abuser’s power or making you feel utterly and totally alone.)
  • Overreactions to your mistakes, however minor. If you forget your umbrella at the park, break a dish while washing up after dinner, pick up the wrong thing at the grocery store, get a lower grade than you expected on a quiz, overcook dinner or miss an exit on the highway, a federal case needs to be established against you. There might be interrogations and summary judgments. Over-the-top emotional reactions are typical: shouting, exaggerated irritation or despondency, nasty moods or iceberg coldness. Your past crimes might be aired and re-examined, to remind you that everything you do is wrong. Even if it’s something like coming down with a cold, you’ll be berated for not taking care of yourself; if only you’d taken some 100% effective preventative measure you wouldn’t be sitting there miserably sniffling. All the while you think to yourself, “If this is how they react to minor screw-ups or misfortunes, what will happen if I mess up big time?” Hello, anxiety!
  • Intimidation and threats. Maybe they use physical violence, but they don’t have to. Shouting and screaming may be sufficient to produce a cowed silence. Or they crowd you in and lean over you, threatening you with the possibility of imminent violence. They may threaten you in other ways, or threaten your loved ones, or tell you they’ll hurt your pet or damage a valued possession. Maybe they’ll act on some of those threats.
  • Cultivating unrealistic expectations that you’ll fall short of. When you do fall short, you’ll feel diminished, sad, unworthy, and angry. If you internalize these unrealistic expectations, even normal setbacks and errors will feel like the end of the world. These expectations are often framed with the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ – I must always do XYZ, my life should be a certain way, other people have to behave in a specific fashion…
  • Encouraging various cognitive distortions. These include all or nothing thinking (either you’re perfect or you’re worthless and hopeless), magnification of errors and minimization of achievements, focusing on negative details while ignoring the positives, blaming yourself for things outside of your control, and not being able to really believe or accept other people’s compliments, however sincere.
  • Lying. They lie outright about you, including to other people. Your protests are dismissed as delusional or dishonest. They may lie about what other people said or did to you, sowing dissension between you and others and fostering mistrust.

There’s probably more I can add to the list, but I’d like to move on…

What to do?


There isn’t one simple way of dealing with and recovering from emotional abuse.

I think it’s necessary to identify that there’s a problem and then to start establishing and fortifying your own perceptions of reality and your own sense of self, fighting your way out of the diminished and degraded definitions the abuser has boxed you into. You’re piecing yourself together again.

You can start getting a stronger sense of self by gaining support from people who treat you well (including a good therapist); they can give you different and more positive and realistic perspectives about yourself that run contrary to your abuser’s negative treatment and viewpoint. They can help you understand the tactics of your abuser, and possibly how to counter them or sidestep them, while also developing yourself into a mentally healthier person. Other perspectives are key, including from people who’ve gone through similar things and have dealt with it in positive ways.

Being able to recognize that there’s a problem, and stepping back and regarding the situation as if you were an outsider, can be helpful. Words and actions that had once seemed absolutely true or sane to you lose some of their power; regarding the abuser with clarity, as someone who behaves in deeply flawed and damaging ways – and not as god-like or kind enough to put up with you or deeply insightful about your nature (“the only one who understands you”) or whatever other inviolable position they occupy – can take away from their hold over you and their power in defining you. Achieving psychological distance (and ideally physical distance) from the abuser is key. (If the emotional abuse is accompanied by physical and/or sexual violence, it’s imperative that you remove yourself physically from the abuser, including calling on intervention from law enforcement.)

It can take years to work on unhealthy mental and emotional patterns/habits if you’ve been in an abusive relationship long-term, particularly parent-child (a child’s sense of the world and of themselves is so strongly shaped by parents), but it’s possible to have a good life. It takes a willingness to work on healing yourself. Sadly this willingness may be undercut by existing poor feelings of self-worth, negativity, and discouragement – “I’m a hopeless case” you might say, even though you’re not.

In some cases people who emotionally abuse others may be willing to undergo therapy and effect positive changes in their behavior, but don’t count on it. Regardless of whether they’re working on themselves or not, put yourself first and work on yourself; you’ll need to in order to rebuild and redefine yourself in healthy ways and regard yourself as a full human being. (Also be vigilant about your own behavior. You might be treating others abusively, diminishing them and yourself, as you perpetuate patterns of behavior and thought you’re familiar with. You’re not doomed to repeat what’s been done to you.)

Here’s an additional article to read on recovery from emotional abuse. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

10 tips to managing frustration

Some of the advice in this short piece – Six Great Ways to Vent Your Frustration – could have come in handy as I moved from one city to another this week, but I’ll share with you the techniques I called on to manage frustration during the move itself:

1) Scold inanimate objects
When a drawer is stuck, your table won’t fit through the door, and your backpack refuses to accommodate the dozen books and folders you’re trying to cram into it, let them know exactly how disappointed you are.

2) Hum under your breath
For me it was mostly Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

3) Picture an end point
I kept thinking of myself at the end of the day in bed with a book after a long shower. Feelings of peace flowed through me.

4) Make jokes
The laughter might have an edge of hysteria to it, but it’s still laughter.

5) Take moments here and there to rest
Sit down, lie down, stop for a drink (of water, not liquor), look around at how much stuff you have left to do how much you’ve accomplished.

6) Make note of progress
Look around and remind yourself that however much is left you really are getting things done. The room is emptier and tidier, half the furniture has been cleared out; there’s progress, bit by bit. That was my mantra: bit by bit.

7) Have concrete plans for what you need to do
Spelling out a list of steps you need to take and a schedule to follow makes life more manageable. Then if you get done with things ahead of time you’re rewarded with a good feeling of being efficient and effectual (and if you don’t get done ahead of time, scold some more inanimate objects). It’s also best to de-clutter as much as possible beforehand, a lesson I’ll take to heart for any future moves.

8) Tear things up
I had to tear up a lot of papers. It was satisfying.

9) Thank other people
Thinking about others and how they’re helping you counteracts the tendency to stew silently.

10) Count your blessings
A few things went unexpectedly well during the move, and I’ve got much to be thankful for – not least, having a home to move to.

The safety of negative criticism

In a class I took a few years ago, the professor assigned readings every week and instructed the students to come up with some comments or discussion questions in response. The readings were primarily research articles in psychology and neuroscience.

At one point the professor brought to our attention that most of the time our comments were negative and critical. “The researchers could’ve done XYZ but they didn’t” or “You can’t use an ANOVA for these data, can you?” or “They didn’t perfectly control for XYZ so their results are less conclusive.” These comments usually weren’t followed up on with alternate suggestions, so the professor would try to coax them out of people. “How would you have improved on the study?” she’d ask. But what’s more, she wanted a substantive discussion of the bigger picture questions. She started to demand more questions larger in scope and accompanied by people’s own ideas for experiments. The discussion had a different intensity then, more energetic and thought-provoking than when students just sat around picking at other people’s work.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to pick apart ideas and recognize a study’s limitations and flaws, whatever they happen to be: abuse of statistics, a poorly chosen subject population, a set of conclusions that’s too bold given the relatively weak results. That’s all a necessary part of critical thinking. Regardless of whether you’re a scientist or not you need to be able to evaluate people’s claims and see what merit they have.

But it’s also important to think in a more positive sense – generating ideas, asking questions, relating one topic to another and considering the implications of different findings. Fewer student comments referred to the strengths of any given study, only the weaknesses.

I remember at the time thinking of why negative remarks naturally dominated our discussions until the professor stepped in:

  • We were afraid to look stupid. If we offered our own ideas they could get shot down and maybe show the workings of an immature mind. What did we know? We didn’t want to take risks. Picking at other people’s mistakes protected us from the most part from criticism, and this was important because we worried too much about what others thought of us.
  • Some of us wanted to look like hotshots in a game of one-upmanship. It was less about the research, more about scoring points off of other people.
  • We were emulating certain professors. The one who ran the class wasn’t like this, but over the years I’ve known other professors who liked to devote their seminars to shredding the work of academic rivals in a mix of scholarly rigor and personal enmity (recently I watched a movie that explores this toxic mix).
  • We were on the receiving end of frequent critical evaluation, sometimes of a very negative kind, so we liked being able to dish it out. It gave us a feeling of power.
  • Making small focused negative remarks took less effort than also trying to think of solutions or come up with new ideas or questions to investigate. Granted, our critical thinking, even if it was mostly negative criticism, took more mental effort than just blindly accepting or rejecting something without justification; we did our homework. But for lack of time, training, knowledge or willingness to put in the effort, we stuck to picking things apart.

One reason I respected the professor who taught that class was her balanced approach to criticizing other people’s work. She looked for flaws, but also for possibilities. She encouraged debate and discussion but didn’t permit nasty remarks. The idea was that we were supposed to take risks, and think more widely and broadly than a purely negative approach would allow, while also being perceptive enough to delve into the nitty-gritty details of a research study and understand its limitations.

Staying purely negative would have been a safer option. In playing the part of ‘superior critic’ we wouldn’t have had to confront our fears, insecurities and weaknesses as much, or take as many risks. And the discussions wouldn’t have been nearly as productive and inspiring.

Unemployment and Mental Health Tips

An article on CNN discusses the effects of long-term unemployment on mental health while profiling a software engineer and a photojournalist who haven’t succeeded in landing a job after months of searching. It’s a bleak picture. Unemployment increases the chances of depression and anxiety, and can lead to feelings of apathy, helplessness, anger, and profound self-doubt. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re well-qualified and out of work in spite of your best efforts. After a while you might begin to wonder if your efforts are worthwhile.

Here are some general tips (several of them mentioned in the article) for staying mentally healthy while unemployed.

  • Take good care of yourself. This includes eating well, staying physically active, and getting enough sleep. Do your best not to leave medical or dental problems untended; a number of conditions when neglected become less easily treatable and more expensive to treat with time.
  • Connect with other people, not only for networking purposes but also socially (granted, the two overlap). Be sure to make time for people who generally help you feel positive, optimistic, and relaxed. Don’t stay cooped up all day at home.
  • Reserve some time for yourself each day or every week to be alone and unplugged from everything, free of other people’s immediate demands.
  • Consider returning to school or obtaining some kind of additional skills training, but only if you can strongly justify the investment of time and money and are clear about why you want to enroll in a given program (simply using it as an escape from “real life” is probably a bad idea). For any program you’re looking into, here are some questions to ask yourself:
    • Is it accredited?
    • What options are available to me for tuition reduction and other kinds of financial aid (that will hopefully not land me in decades of debt)?
    • Would I be offered opportunities to work while enrolled? What’s the track record for finding a job on completion of the program? Are there good career services in place that would offer me help?
    • Why is it that I want to get this degree/certification/training?
    • What do current and former students say about the program?
    • What are the alternatives to obtaining this particular degree or certification? What alternatives exist to the program I have in mind?
    • Does this program allow me to make use of previous educational or job experience? (e.g. transfer credits)?
    • Do I need to complete the whole program, or can taking a key class or two suffice for my purposes?
  • Learn for free online. Here are a couple of good lists of free online educational sites, where you can learn for the pleasure of it, to further your intellectual development, and to expand your job-relevant skills and training: The 100 Best (And Free) Online Learning Tools and 12 Dozen places to Educate Yourself Online for Free. Two of my favorite sites these days are The Khan Academy and Code Year.
  • Learn for free offline. Places where I’ve attended free lectures, discussions, and classes have included:
    • Public libraries
    • Museums
    • Local colleges and other educational institutions
    • Historical societies (and other societies of the sort)
    • Book stores
    • Public parks
    • Religious institutions
    • Healthcare institutions
    • Community centers

    These kinds of events are often advertised online and in local magazines and newspapers.

  • Volunteer. Opportunities for volunteering exist in practically every field. In addition to giving you the good feeling that comes from helping people and being engaged with the world, volunteering can strengthen or maintain your existing skills and train you in new ones, and also help you make new connections and obtain references.
  • Work on projects you’re passionate about. Along with giving you purpose and fulfillment, they might also make money for you or help your future employment prospects (including steady self-employment). Also keep an eye open for (legal) opportunities all around you, short-term and long-term. Maybe there’s a needed service you can offer people based on your skill set and experience.
  • Structure your day. In the absence of familiar routines each day can feel shapeless and devoid of direction and purpose. It’s easy for hours to pass unproductively in a blur of T.V. and web-surfing.

    You could have a detailed plan for what you want to do every hour, or just make a list of what you hope to accomplish every day, with the most important items given top priority; even if you rarely get to every single item on the list, you’ll at least address the most important ones.

    Your daytime plans should be as concrete as possible. For instance instead of saying, “I’ll look for work,” write down the specific actions you’ll take (the people you’ll contact, the applications you’ll fill out, the cover letter you’ll tweak, etc.).

    Also account for how you’ll be spending your time when you aren’t looking for work: obligations to family and friends, communal activities, various projects, chores around the house, personal time, sleep. The more disciplined you are, the easier it will be for your mind to stay sharp, focused and active; you’ll know what you need to do and work towards it with purpose.

  • Even if you’re feeling down, try not to brood. It’s useless, counter-productive and self-defeating. All those worries whirling around your head, all those negative remarks you’ve heard from others and beaten yourself up with lead nowhere. Find ways to cut off brooding if you start to sink into it – meditate, take a minute or two to just breathe, go for a walk, do some exercise, listen to some music, pray – whatever will keep you from rehashing and picking over the same negative thoughts. Focus your energies on concrete actions; stay open to various ideas.
  • Don’t take the situation personally, as a sign that there’s something fundamentally, irredeemably wrong with you. Others might try to make you feel it personally – they might gloat over your struggles or tell you that you aren’t trying hard enough or talk about how easy it was for so-and-so to land a job. Getting hit with these kinds of discouraging remarks can take a toll on your mental health and deplete you of the energy you need to stay productive.

    Your uncertain circumstances and lack of employment don’t make you a worthless person. Be open to suggestions and constructive criticism but don’t accept insults. Don’t fall into the trap of measuring yourself against everyone you meet to see how far you fall short, or how much better you are than them. Remember that we’re all human.

    People who undermine you in the guise of “helpful” or “motivating” remarks are to be avoided as much as possible; at the very least try to block out their remarks. Spend time with people who genuinely support you and stay engaged in activities that inspire you. Do what you can to stay hopeful and to keep working on yourself with an open and positive outlook.

Other resources:
A link from 2009 with content that’s still relevant today: 100 tips, tools, and resources to help you survive without a job.

Hope Now unemployment resources (part of a general site for homeowners, but the job-related links could apply people who don’t own a home).

Just found this Forbes article – 10 Things You Need to Do While You’re Unemployed (some of the advice overlaps with this post, and there are further suggestions about networking and resume-writing, along with an attitude of self-reliance and making opportunities for yourself).

I hope that at least some of these suggestions have been of use to you. Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts, advice, and experiences.

Why am I so…?

On Google yesterday I typed in the phrase “Why am I so…” and waited to see what suggestions autocomplete would offer to finish the phrase (yes I was procrastinating, I admit it). Here are the top 10:

Why am I so…
1) tired
2) ugly
3) gassy
4) lazy
5) fat
6) depressed
7) hungry
8) itchy
9) bloated
10) cold

I did this little exercise out of curiosity about the kinds of questions we commonly ask of ourselves (at least on Google); from what I’ve read about the autocomplete algorithm, it draws on the search activities of the millions and millions of people using Google, along with phrases and keywords in Google-indexed web pages. (It could have drawn on my personal search history as well, but as I was logged out of Google and had disabled Web History a while ago, I’m not sure my own Googling affected the outcome much.)

Regardless, there are many, many webpages out there directly addressing these queries. So, what do we find on the internet in answer to them? Some good advice, some terrible advice, some people commiserating, others jeering. And there’s anguish. Lots of anguish. Our problems can consume our mental energy, and possibly our lives.

A few of the search terms are more blatantly medical than others (bloated, itchy, gassy) and more superficial; we want to find out why we have these symptoms and whether we should be alarmed, and how we can put an end to the unpleasantness and get some relief – but being gassy is rarely taken as a sign that we’re fundamentally defective. Others could definitely be medical and a result of certain lifestyle choices (tired, fat, etc.) but there are also deeper issues at work there; the possible answers are more complex and get at who we are (or who we think we are) as people.

Not that we’re always looking for answers. We want to work on ourselves, but sometimes we aren’t ready yet to make the effort. What we might hope to find – in addition to, or as a substitute for, any concrete suggestions for improvement – are opportunities to:
1) Confirm that we’re not alone. So many forums exist out there for people with depression for instance, who understand one another and maybe feel less alone as a result.

2) Absorb some sympathy. I don’t just mean in a “poor me” dramatically self-pitying “nobody has it this bad” sort of way (though depending on the individual there might be some of that) but just genuine warmth and support. Maybe we lack that from people in our lives.

3) Get encouragement. Doing anything about laziness or tiredness or other problems can be daunting. What we need are inspiring stories and kind words. This might give us a boost now or give us hope for the future, even if we feel as if we can’t manage the effort at the present time.

4) Satisfy our curiosity. We want to see what life is like for other people. That might include a comparison between us and them (e.g. they have it so much easier than I do… they might have succeeded in overcoming their problems, but I know for sure that I won’t).

5) Have our own suspicions or perceptions, however pessimistic, confirmed. There’s a kind of grim satisfaction we get from hearing that what we’ve thought all along is true: we’re screwed – by genetics, by poor choices, by any number of factors – and it will be terribly difficult to get well and turn our lives around. So there. If we can confirm that we’re hopeless, it means we don’t have to do anything, because nothing we’ll do matters. At least, this is what we tell ourselves.

6) Stall. We’ll find nothing that we don’t already know. We’ve done this web search before, multiple times, combed through dozens of sites. We’re searching again (and again) to no real purpose. Googling our problems gives us the illusion of doing something meaningful to improve our lives, when it’s really time for us to start acting on what we know. Are we delaying any changes we need to make because we’re afraid we’ll fail? Because the effort is too great? Are we using these self-help searches to sabotage ourselves? Maybe.

People are more than capable of using an opportunity to get better as a way to prevent themselves from getting better. We’re masters at both irony and self-sabotage.

You know which one broke my heart most? ‘Ugly’ (“why am I so ugly?”). Looking through some of the search results you see people who’ve already made up their mind that yes, they’re ugly. It’s an incontrovertible truth to them. Most have been repeatedly told they’re ugly, in subtle and not-remotely-subtle ways, and they live in anguish. Offline they may try to mask that anguish and carry on as usual, but it eats away at them.

It gives you tremendous pain to look at yourself and see ugliness. To feel it as others stare at you. To be convinced that you’ll be spurned and alone for the rest of your life. Unless you do something… but what? If you get plastic surgery, will you love yourself? What about new clothes? Will you be loved then? The self-perception of ‘ugliness’ is never only about your pronounced nose, your belly fat, your varicose veins, your acne, your asymmetrical face, or a combination of all of those… it’s a deep feeling of wrongness crawling through you.

The feeling is so deep and pervasive, so very much a part of how we define ourselves, that we think it can’t be anything but true. It comes to dominate everything.

“Why am I so ugly” echoes in some of the others (‘fat,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘tired.’) Looking at ourselves and seeing a lump. A nothing. No beauty, no spirit, just a blob of inertia and pain. Other people can hurt us and do their best to grind us down. But when they’re not around, we take over and keep at it. We’re deeply convinced that there’s no other life for us, no real and lasting alternatives to the state we’re stuck in. We might want to change, and sometimes are overcome with a desire to make the effort, but it gives way to a belief that we’ll never be able to do it. Even if we think we can, we’ll likely fail, and any failure will prove once and for all that we really are stuck. (Failure proves no such thing, but it’s a convincing lie that we often buy into). In any case the concept of who we are is fixed in our mind and it colors everything in our life.

The things we miss out on when our minds are overrun with these thoughts. There’s so much to think about, to enjoy, to wonder about, to love in this world, to fight for, to care about, to learn and explore and live for. It’s a tragedy when our self-perceptions prevent us from seeing this goodness, this vast potential, and keep us from believing that we can ever be a part of it.

Much of our mental energy is consumed by our problems. Sometimes the solutions are relatively straightforward, if it’s a solution we’re really after (Gassy? Don’t eat certain kinds of food. Itchy? Here, try this cream.) Other times the problem is more complex. And our attempts at solving it can set us back further. Instead of working on our ambitions and projects, enjoying our hobbies, nurturing our relationships, cultivating our minds – in short, doing all the things that could give us a richer life and help us ease our pain – we tear ourselves apart in the process of trying to make ourselves better.

It can be useful to find a name for a particular problem. For instance, if we figure out that our tiredness, emptiness, and lack of pleasure might be depression, then calling it ‘depression’ – knowing it for what it is – can be the first step towards managing it so that we can restore ourselves to a healthier life. But when our negative labels feel permanent and all-encompassing (Fat? I’m nothing but fat. Lazy? Yep, can’t do a thing. Ugly? Everyone thinks so, and that’s all they see when they look at me) then it becomes much more difficult to believe that we could ever see ourselves differently – that we could ever be different, happier, more contented, and lead a rich, varied, meaningful life, where we aren’t weighed down so strongly by one particular definition of ourselves.

Understanding and addressing our perceptions of ourselves, particularly when they’re so cruelly negative, is necessary for good mental and physical health, and for a strong life well-lived; our thoughts are fundamental to the kind of life we’ll experience. Wrestling with self-defeating perceptions can be a lifelong struggle, but hopefully one that won’t end in resigned defeat, grim confirmation that we were “right about ourselves” all along.

On that note, here’s a related post I found today: 7 Common Habits of Unhappy People.

Things people do to get you to stop thinking

You love thinking about things. You love asking questions, analyzing information, crafting arguments and counter-arguments, and wondering about life and its mysteries.

Assuming you don’t always keep your thoughts to yourself, you’ll likely find yourself inconveniencing, troubling or angering people who don’t want to have to deal with the fact that you think about things. I’m not talking about people who get annoyed if you happen to be nosy and intrusive or tactless (e.g. starting a debate about the existence and/or nature of the afterlife at a funeral), or if you’re arguing in bad faith. I’m talking about people who want you to accept things, fit in, do as you’re told, and not make them uncomfortable by exploring alternate possibilities or additional complexities.

Here are some patterns of behavior they might adopt to get you to stop thinking (or at least, to stop inflicting your thoughts on them, which might also discourage you from considering them on your own):

Belittling you and your thoughts

When you’re being sincere and willing to discuss something and learn more, and people tell you things like:

“What kind of a stupid question is that?”
“Would you just shut up?”
“Who cares?”
“Who thinks about these things?”
“You’re just trying to cause trouble, aren’t you.”
“Only messed up people think about these things.”
“You shouldn’t think about those things. What’s wrong with you?”
“Seriously? You have no life.”

You’re meant to regard yourself as an idiot or a shameful deviant. You’re told these things so that you’ll think twice before sharing your thoughts in the future, and even deeper than that, doubt yourself as a thinking person.

It’s especially terrible to say these things to a child. Children are starting to explore the world, and the questions they ask that may seem silly to us are logical or reasonable from their point-of-view. And notice how I say “seem silly” because many times their questions make us confront day-to-day aspects of reality that we take for granted and haven’t given much thought to. We might not have the answers. We might never have considered these things. But they’re legitimate questions and deserve a response, even if the response is something like, “I don’t know… why not look it up?” Because even if we don’t know the answer, we can at least allow for the possibility of further exploration, rather than shutting down a child’s thought entirely.

Even in the face of a sincere thought that’s based on false or ridiculous assumptions, there are ways of addressing the mistake without belittling the person. Mistakes go hand in hand with learning and growth.

Responding with abrupt finality

Attempts to cut off a train of thought and effectively nip a budding discussion; none of these have to be said in an insulting way.

“It is what it is.”
“Stop thinking about it.”
“That’s how things are. They’ve always been that way. The subject’s closed.”
“Because.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“There’s no use thinking about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”

You can also be told flat-out that thinking itself is problematic.
“You think too much.”
“You have better things to do than think about these things.”

Consistently exhibiting impatience

In addition to cutting you off or possibly insulting you, people can show signs of impatience: looking at their watches, fidgeting, sighing, giving you a look like you’re sucking the life out of their day.

People don’t always have time to hear you out. But if you get this attitude consistently from certain people, every day and at all times of the day, then they very likely don’t want you to bother them with your thoughts.

I’m also thinking of harried parents who’ve got a three-year-old who’s just discovered the word ‘why’. I sympathize with them, I do, but there are ways of dealing with children’s natural curiosity about how the world works that doesn’t involve shutting them down or showing them through impatience and frustration that their questions are nothing but a source of annoyance. For instance, you could use their questions as an opportunity to teach them how to work through problems and find things out on their own. You could also tell them to hold on to a thought and revisit it at a future time (via a book, a movie, a trip to a museum, an outdoor walk, etc.). You could keep a little notebook where you write down unanswered questions that both of you will think about more and return to. Even if you don’t have time at every hour of the day to answer a question or you don’t know the answer, you could still create an atmosphere where thoughts are valued and addressed, if not immediately then at some point.

Ignoring you

You and your pesky questions do not exist. Your thoughts are beneath notice. They don’t enter into discussions, either personal or communal. Maybe then you’ll go away.

Denying you access to intellectual resources

You’re denied opportunities for education. You aren’t given the means to try to educate yourself, even if no one around you wants to teach you. You’re restricted in your exposure to various viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

Denying that your thoughts are your own

“Who told you to say that?”
“Someone brainwashed you.”
“All those books you read have messed with your head.”

Unlike the examples of belittling above, which can make you feel stupid or wrong and unable to think, this kind of response makes you doubt your agency as a human being and doubt whether anything you think of really is your own. Even if you did hear about an idea from someone else, the fact that you’re bringing it up shows that it matters to you personally. In response you’re getting treated like a passive sponge absorbing and secreting things, instead of a mentally active human being.

Denying that someone like you can think about certain things

“Why do you want to know about that? You’re a girl.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Boys don’t read that stuff.”

A powerful way to get you to shut up and stop thinking is to persuade you that your biological makeup prevents the formation and development of certain thoughts and the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge.

Even if you demonstrate that you can think and learn about topics that are supposedly beyond your reach, you’ll be told that you shouldn’t learn about them. ‘Can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ – two cherished words of people who want to shut down thought and keep you in line.

Making you feel like a social pariah

“Neerrrrrrrrd!!”
(Frankly I see this as a compliment, but most people don’t share my enlightened opinion.)
“Loser!”
(Not a compliment. Not by a stretch.)
“Who’d want to marry/date/befriend/work with/tolerate someone who cares about these things?”
(There are almost definitely people who would, but unfortunately you might be surrounded by people who wouldn’t.)
“I’m going to fix a label on you so that I can oversimplify everything you think about, and based on that label I will decide whether I like you or despise you, ok? That’ll make life so much easier for me.”
(Granted, usually people aren’t as blunt as that.)

If you’re interested in exploring and thinking about topics that aren’t popular or given broad sanction by your culture (particularly for people of your sex, race, age, etc.), then there will be many who will delight in teasing, belittling, excluding, and/or tormenting you.

Even among circles of people who do care about similar things, you’ll find those who try to ostracize you for not holding the “correct” opinions and subscribing to the “correct” beliefs.

People who genuinely care about discussion and exploration (instead of needing to always be right and overpowering others who think differently) have always struck me as being in the minority.

Threatening you

“Nice brain you’ve got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”

Threats are the second to last resort of people who’ve tried other things to get you to drop a line of questioning or stop verbalizing your thoughts, and now need to use real fear to keep you in line. Fear of being marginalized or ostracized can be a part of it, but there’s also fear of physical harm to you and others, and the loss of valued privileges or rights.

Punishing you

Why punish you? To hurt you, to drive home the point that you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and they’re right and just. If you haven’t submitted yet, maybe now you will. It isn’t your place to think, and they’ll make sure you know it.

Enforcing and intensifying mental submission is gratifying to many people. It’s not enough to have control over another person’s body – to have control over the mind, now that’s something. To wrench it down well-trodden paths no matter how hard its trying to weave its way into the deep woods – that takes some persistence and ingenuity. Thoughts are dangerous. It’s best to drive them out, or barring that, keep a lid on them.

Claiming good intentions

In most cases people who do these things will tell you that it’s for your own good. They can be genuinely convinced of that. They tell themselves, and you, that they’re stopping you from wasting everyone’s time, including your own. They’re keeping you from alienating others. They might be convinced that they’re saving your soul or your social status or your happiness. They want you to be normal and keep quiet and be satisfied with what you know; if you must ask questions, ask only the right ones, whatever those might be for a person like you. Think only about the things they tell you you’re meant to think about. That way you fit in and no one is bothered.

If they hurt you, well, it’s for your own good. And for the greater good. For everyone’s good.

That’s what they say.

Do you believe them?

Assessing total cognitive burden

Here’s an interesting post to read about assessing and possibly reducing your risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.

Some questions posed there:

Do you have ongoing stress in your life, or have experienced significant amounts of stress at some period during middle-age?

Do you rarely engage in exercise?

Do you spend most evenings blobbed out in front of the TV?

Reading through the possible risk factors you see some that you can’t control, such as genes and family history and your early childhood circumstances (for instance if you grew up in a very stressful home), but the list also emphasizes modifiable risk factors: amount of exercise, drinking habits, sleep habits, mental stimulation, etc. How all of those interact is still an open question. But when you think about it there never seems to be one trick, one magic way (or magic pill), that improves your long-term cognitive and physical health (which are closely intertwined). Instead it’s about making your life as healthy as possible all around, in multiple areas.

Getting the mind to pipe down

An article in More Intelligent Life called “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” brings up the following point: thinking too much can make you mess up. Examples are given of tennis players who fumble when they think too much about their backhand, opera singers who falter if they start to think about whether their voice is at its best, and songwriters who can barely string together lyrics because their thoughts are interfering with their creative processes.

It’s not just any kind of thinking that messes you up, but badly timed self-conscious thinking, when you’re thinking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it (and on top of that, maybe thinking about how you appear to your audience). This cripples creativity and makes you second-guess yourself at the worst possible moment. What you may be hoping for instead during those moments of performance or creative functioning, is what the article calls “unthinking”:

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

How do you best remove yourself from the equation? That’s definitely something I’d like to explore in future posts. I know what it’s like when I’m writing, and critical voices intrude during that first draft when everything should be coming out uninhibited. My mind is hamstringing itself.

In large part dealing with badly timed self-conscious thinking has to be a matter of mental flexibility and discipline. There are times when you want to evaluate your own thinking – revising your assumptions, checking yourself before you do or say something you’ll regret, evaluating your performance (after the fact, not during). It’s not good to always operate unselfconsciously. But you need to command the ability to switch between one mindset and another so that self-conscious thoughts don’t overtake your mind at exactly those moments when you should be acting with unthinking clarity and focus. Any advice on how to do this well? (There’s a topic for several future posts.)

Also it takes trust – the ability to let go and trust yourself. At the right moment you have to forget what you know and what you don’t know, what others think of you, what you think of yourself – you become a conduit for creativity, talent, ingenuity and unselfconscious thought. You have to trust that what you know and what you can do is enough, more than enough, and that for the moment at least you are sufficient and complete. All considerations of success and failure must disappear from your mind, because you’re entering a state of mind where the typical yardsticks measuring failure and success don’t exist anymore.

Easier said than done. How do you get to that state of mind when you most need to?