This Is How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

Why me? Why can’t I ever catch a break?

If you’re in the habit of asking such questions, it’s a sign you may have a victim mentality. When you’re playing the victim, you believe that bad things you experience are the fault of others.

What’s more, you believe those bad things will keep happening, so there’s no point in changing. It feels like the world is against you.

There’s a difference between being a victim of real hardships (e.g., poverty, disease, trauma) and having a victim mentality. (1) With a victim mentality, you believe not only that you’re a victim of negative circumstances but also that you’re helpless in the face of them.

Such thinking may provide some psychic relief, at least in the short term. But what you’re really doing with this kind of thinking is sabotaging yourself.

A victim mentality is not only a problem for individuals, according to researchers. Groups and teams can also fall into this trap. That damages the culture, so leaders need to monitor and address this problem early and often.

Having a victim mentality comes with a substantial price. For example, it can:

  • drain your energy
  • bring frustration, anger, resentment, and bitterness
  • result in giving up and feeling self-pity
  • diminish your sense of agency
  • lead to withdrawing from friends, family, and colleagues
  • stop you from taking necessary actions
  • damage your mental and emotional wellbeing
  • be a gateway to other maladaptive behaviors, including numbing behaviors like abusing alcohol or drugs
  • become a vicious cycle, with poor responses to tough situations, inviting more problems and then ultimately feeling worthlessness and pointlessness

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

According to psychologists, victimhood is an acquired trait, not inborn. That means you have the power to overcome it.

Here are 18 ways to stop being a victim:

1. Avoid wallowing in negative emotions. Dark and gloomy feelings are natural, even universal. But that doesn’t mean you have to dwell on them. Catch yourself tuning into negative feelings and resolve to change the channel when you do so.

2. Change your self-talk. Analyze and question your beliefs. Dispute the idea that you’re a helpless victim. For example, ask whether your identity as a victim is true. Ask whether your current beliefs are useful or harmful. Then act accordingly.

3. Don’t ruminate on your problems. Focus instead on something more positive (e.g., what you’ve learned or what you’re looking forward to). (See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”)

4. Recognize the patterns of when you lapse into victimhood. Be wary of those people or things and devise ways to avoid or address them. Recall the kinds of things that help you stop these downward spirals.

5. Develop a healthy view of yourself and your capabilities. Build your confidence by preparing well for challenges or big projects. Focus on learning and developing as you go.

6. Recall situations in which you’ve overcome adversity. You may be more resilient than you think.

7. Take an inventory of your strengths. Know what you’re good at—the things at which you excel most. Brainstorm how you can use your strengths to address challenges you’re facing. (See my article, “The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths.”)

8. Distinguish between yourself and your negative experiences. You are not what’s happened to you. Don’t assume the identity of a victim. Believe that you have the power to overcome your circumstances.

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

9. Realize that you always have agency. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. It comes with pain, loss, and heartache. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless in the face of hardship.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10. Change who you spend time with. Avoid people who wallow in victimhood. Spend more time with positive people who take responsibility and proactively address problems as they arise.

11. Recognize that having a victim mentality is a form of self-sabotage. Resolve to transcend this thing that’s only prolonging your misery and holding you back.

12. Make a clear and firm decision to let go of the victim mentality. Why not choose to be happy and thrive instead?

13. Forgive. Forgive people who have harmed you—if not for them, for you. Maya Angelou called forgiveness “one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.” And forgive yourself as well for past mistakes. Make peace with your past.

14. Take responsibility for your whole life and everything in it. That means everything, including the things that are unjust or unfair. (See my article, “The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life.”)

15. Be kind to others and find ways to serve them. By doing so, you’ll escape an unhealthy fixation on yourself and your dramas. The fixation feeds the victim mentality, while service starves it.

16. Engage in daily self-care practices. Create systems for this, make it easy, and develop good habits. That should include exercise, good sleep and healthy eating habits, and perhaps other practices like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.

17. Develop a gratitude practice. This will interrupt your negative thought loops and place your feelings of self-pity in a larger and more accurate perspective. (See my article,The Trap of Not Being Grateful.”) When you focus on the good things in your life, it’s hard to feel like a victim.

18. Seek help from a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

Wishing you well with it.

Gregg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on How to Stop Being a Victim

  • “Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “Once you have identified with some form of negativity, you do not want to let go, and on a deeply unconscious level, you do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity…. You will then ignore, deny, or sabotage the positive in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “…what helps victims best is the development of a healthier self-concept.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.” -Richard Bach, writer
  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The difference between the hero and the victim is the way they react to the pain they experience.” -Donald Miller, business executive and author
  • “…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.” -Dr. Robert W. Firestone, clinical psychologist
  • “…people suffering from the victim syndrome are prone to aggravate the mess in which they find themselves. Strange as it may sound, they are often victims by choice. And ironically, they are frequently successful in finding willing victimizers.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “A victim identity is the belief that the past is more powerful than the present, which is the opposite of the truth.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

(1) If you’ve experienced trauma or abuse, try to disclose it as early as possible to trusted family members, friends, or trained professionals. That can lead to more support and quicker processing and healing.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Is This It? On the Disappointment of Success

For so long we’ve wished for it. Worked hard for it. Suffered for it. Our dream.

We clawed and climbed for it. Sacrificed for it.

One day, after all the trials and tribulations, we’re finally there. The treasure chest of our dreams is before us. We almost can’t believe it.

We pause, relishing the moment, and then open it.

What we find is astonishing.

It’s empty.

Empty.

EMPTY???

How can that possibly be?

But it is. The treasure chest is empty.

What we’ve encountered is the “arrival fallacy”—the assumption that once we accomplish a major goal, we’ll get lasting happiness or satisfaction. It’s a lie.

 

Examples All Around Us

We see it all around us.

 

We see it in former athletes.

Think of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with an astonishing 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He was World Swimmer of the Year eight times and broke 29 individual world records. He’s considered the greatest swimmer of all time—and perhaps one of the greatest athletes of all time.

After all that, he found himself in a depression after retiring from swimming and revealed that he had contemplated suicide. Is this it?

Think of Tom Brady. He won seven Super Bowl championships and was the most valuable player of the Super Bowl five times. When somebody asked him during his storied career which Super Bowl ring is his favorite, Brady replied, “The next one.”

Here’s Brady talking to journalist Steve Kroft:

Brady: Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Kroft: What’s the answer?
Brady: I wish I knew. I wish I knew….

 

We see it in our accomplishments, like a promotion or raise.

We’ve been working so hard, and we believe those achievements will transform our lives for the better. Yet we’re disappointed when we see that the reality is often far different from our expectations.

“After a lifetime of trying, I finally had a book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
It made me really happy… for about ten minutes.”
-author

 

We see it in retirees.

After looking forward to finally enjoying life after putting so much time into their work, many recent retirees hit the golf course or the beach and wonder, Is this it? According to researchers, the prevalence of depression among retirees is substantially higher than that of the overall older adult population. (1)

 

We see it in former executives.

Hubert Joly had remarkable success early in his business career. After making partner at McKinsey & Co. by age 30, he led EDS France, turned around Vivendi’s video games divisions, and became CEO of Carlson-Wagonlit Travel. He felt that he had reached the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. First, it came with all sorts of new problems and hassles. And second, it felt empty.

“The mountaintop felt desolate. The idea of success I had been chasing turned out to be hollow,
and I felt disillusioned and empty.”

-Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO, Best Buy

 

We see it everywhere.

We see it in parents whose children have left the home. In retired military personnel. We even see it in kings.

Take the example of Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba in southern Spain in the 10th century. Around age 70, he was reflecting on a life of remarkable worldly success: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.” He thought about his incredible riches and all his honors, including the power and pleasure that waited on his call, as he described it. What did all of it add up to?

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.
They amount to 14.”
-Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba

Is this it? Fourteen days of happiness from 50 years of living in the best of circumstances?

Alas, getting what we want can be unsatisfying or even disappointing. It can feel like less than we imagined, not as Earth-shattering as we hoped. Why?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What’s Going On?

Things are good, but we feel surprisingly empty. We wonder why we’re not happy and fulfilled. Maybe we lack motivation or enthusiasm for things. We feel purposeless. Maybe we lack energy, or we’ve lost interest in activities that we once found engaging.

There are a number of factors at work here:

 

Feeling lasting satisfaction is highly unlikely due to our evolutionary biology.

Given our biological makeup, we have an urge to keep pursuing more (lest we run out of food or shelter) and an inability to maintain any strong emotional state. We have a strong wanting drive that’s deeply baked into our nature.

A big part of what’s going on here is the frustrating but very real phenomenon of hedonic adaptation (also called the hedonic treadmill), in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred. We’re wired biologically to return to homeostasis. Whenever we experience change, our mind and body work hard to re-equilibrate. So, we return to the baseline. It’s the way we’re wired. And still we wonder: Is this it?

 

Our brain is working against us.

When we’re working toward something, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and learning, in anticipation of the reward of achieving it. We get dopamine hits as we make progress toward the goal. What happens when we achieve our goal? Those dopamine hits fall away. (Ouch.) The result? We bounce from goal to goal in an endless pursuit of those hits, almost like chasing our tail.

 

When we reach the top, we may stop learning, growing, and challenging ourselves.

That’s a recipe for stasis and complacency. We also need variety to keep things interesting.

 

On our way to the top, we may have neglected important relationships in our lives.

That Faustian bargain may come back to haunt us.

 

After we’ve accomplished a goal, we can lose our sense of identity and purpose.

We have to reorient our focus toward something new, and perhaps redirect how we perceive ourselves. Not easy. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped up in Your Work?”)

 

Sometimes, the reality we experience at the top is a far cry from the dream we had.

Sure, there are likely to be perks of that promotion and raise, but there are also likely to be new hassles. Longer hours. More responsibilities. More cut-throat politics.

 

Contributing Factors

Often, there are contributing factors that compound the problem of disappointment. Here are some examples of common traps we fall into that make things worse.

 

Going for other people’s goals.

If we were exerting all that effort to please our parents or impress our neighbors or boss, it’s no wonder we find ourselves less than fulfilled at the end of it

 

Falling into the “expectations trap.”

When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we become attached to our expectations, we feel disappointment, even though our life may be going well.

 

Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons.

Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often—comparing ourselves to others on things that tend to be fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to unrealistic standards (i.e., the most outwardly successful or beautiful). It’s a recipe for disappointment.

 

Believing the common myths about happiness and success.

For example, the trap of believing that:

  • happiness comes from improving our circumstances
  • we’ll be happy when we’re successful
  • we’ll be happy when we have certain things
  • happiness is a destination
  • success is the point of life
  • we can measure success in dollars, possessions, and other things that bring us status and attention (2)

(See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Happiness.”)

 

Never feeling successful enough.

We can always do more. There’s always more to chase. (Back to the hedonic treadmill.)

 

Drifting away from ourselves in the pursuit of success.

We see the disconnection between who we really are and what we’re doing, and we feel it.

 

Drifting away from our family and friends in the single-minded pursuit of our success.

Meanwhile, it’s precisely those relationships that lead to the most enduring happiness and life satisfaction. We’ve been sabotaging them on our way to the top.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About It

Though we’re wired this way, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against this phenomenon and resigned to disappointment. Here are 15 things we can do to address it.

 

1. Learn to value the process and the journey instead of fixating on the end result.

Focusing only on the end result makes little sense. Are we supposed to endure four years of high school or college just so we can enjoy a two-hour ceremony? Suffer through months of training only so we can enjoy the instant it takes to cross the finish line?

 

2. Diversify our sources of happiness.

Make sure we have several irons in the fire when it comes to things that motivate us and bring us enjoyment. That way, when we’ve achieved a goal, we’re less likely to experience that drop-off of happiness and motivation, because we have other things that enrich our lives.

 

3. Make plans for what will follow our major initiatives.

Again, that will help us have something to look forward to. Otherwise, we may be destined to fall off the satisfaction cliff.

 

4. Mine the experience for learnings.

Instead of expecting to be lastingly happy from accomplishing something, review the experience for learning and growth. Think about what we liked about the experience—and what we didn’t. This will help us extract nuggets that we can apply as we redirect our focus toward other activities and new goals.

 

5. Recenter.

Sometimes when we’re in hot pursuit of a goal, we can lose ourselves in all that hustle. We become the single-minded, obsessed goal achiever and let other important parts of our life suffer or fall away. Now’s a good time to recenter and come back to the fullness of living whole.

 

6. Rediscover purpose.

Sometimes, when we’re pursuing a goal, we lose sight of our deeper why, our purpose. Our goal-pursuit is about ego, prestige, status, or vanity instead of about something bigger than ourselves like connection, service, or spirituality.

 

7. Give back.

If we’re caught up in disappointment about the lack of lasting happiness after a big accomplishment, it’s a sign that we’re too focused on ourselves. Change the focus to helping others. For example, ask the following:

What did we learn along the way that we can share with others? How can we teach it or otherwise give back to make the accomplishment even more meaningful and impactful?

German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” and described it as a stage in our psychosocial development characterized by “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” The idea is that, as we get older, we start focusing less on ourselves and more on nurturing and guiding young people as well as fostering the success of future generations. It resonates with what Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam called “gerotranscendence,” which is a shift in our understanding of ourselves and our role in things as we age, from a materialistic view of the world to a more transcendent one, with enhanced feelings of connection with past generations and lower interest in superficial social interaction.

 

8. Learn to savor life now.

This means noticing what’s going on around us and fully feeling positive emotions. In the process, we extend them and help encode them in our memory banks.

 

9. Realize that we never really arrive while we’re living.

Living isn’t about reaching some metaphorical finish line. Do we really believe that life is a race? Living isn’t about reaching some chosen level of success. Do we really believe that success is the point of life?

 

10. Reinvest in learning and growing.

Take a course. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Watch TED talks. Learn a new skill or language. Adopt a creative practice such as painting or poetry.

 

11. Establish a spiritual practice, ideally daily.

Engage in prayer, worship, contemplation, meditation, or yoga.

 

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice.

Return regularly to the things we have and to the things we’re thankful for. Being grateful for all we have is much wiser than expecting achievements to keep us continually satisfied.

 

13. Craft our work and leisure activities to facilitate “flow” states.

When in flow, we’re so absorbed in something that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

 

14. Build more of our strengths and passions into our life and work.

Figure out what we’re good at (our strengths) and what we love (our passions) and creatively bake them into the fabric of our days.

 

15. Focus on everyday progress toward an ever-renewing set of meaningful goals and worthy activities.

That’s wiser than placing all of our hopes on ONE BIG ATTAINMENT.

As always, we’re wise to seek professional help from a coach, mentor, or therapist if we feel stuck in a rut or caught in a loop of dissatisfaction.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Conclusion

Some may conclude from contemplating the arrival fallacy that there’s no point in setting and pursuing goals. While understandable, that’s a mistake. We should continue setting and pursuing goals but change our focus from a fixation on goal achievement to enjoying (and mastering) the process along the way. We can change the focus from winning or achieving to who we become in the process of pursuing goals. Indeed, pursuing goals can be energizing, fun, and fulfilling. We can enjoy the process of learning, growing, and discovering how to address challenges along the way. Lasting, sustainable happiness is about good living day in and day out, teed up by intentional choices about what matters, not about achieving certain levels of success.

In the end, maybe we should stop chasing things like happiness, success, wealth, beauty, fame, power, prestige, comfort, and pleasure. These all have their merits, of course. But they’re destined to disappoint in the final analysis.

Why not focus instead on living a good life—on intentionally crafting a life we love and that fits our nature? A life of health, connection, and service. On crafting a life of purpose, learning, growth, integrity, and wisdom. A life of joy and savoring. And a life in which we work to make things better, with and for others.

Back to the treasure chest.

Maybe we were looking for the treasure in the wrong place? The treasure was with us all along, but we were so focused on the prize at the end that we missed what was before us.

Will we keep repeating the mistake?

 

Tools for You

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?” -Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist and poet
  • “As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty… I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.” -Ray Allen, NBA basketball star
  • “So I won an Olympic gold. And as I climbed down from the podium, the only thought I could think was, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ It was awful, absolutely terrifying. It was like death—the worst feeling I’d ever had.” -a client of Dr. Martha Beck, Harvard-trained sociologist, coach, and author, as told in The Way of Integrity
  • “When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career.” -Judith Viorst, writer and author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • “I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones
  • “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” -Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher and writer
  • “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
  • “Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s … fine, for a while. And then a new dream appears.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.” -Sam Shepard, actor and playwright
  • “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” -Robert Pirsig, philosopher and writer
  • “Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness…. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus, French philosopher and author
  • “…our natural state is dissatisfaction, punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction…. The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The late-life crisis… really is a thing. Recent research has found that as many as one in three people over 60 will experience it in some form. The late-life crisis is characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked, so it’s all downhill from here.” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” -Luke 12:33-34 NIV

 

References

(1) Pabón-Carrasco M, Ramirez-Baena L, López Sánchez R, Rodríguez-Gallego I, Suleiman-Martos N, Gómez-Urquiza JL. Prevalence of depression in retirees: a meta-analysis. Healthcare. 2020;8(3):321

(2) Material things aren’t likely to boost our happiness in a sustained way, according to the research. What’s more, materialistic people tend to be less happy than others. They tend to have fewer positive emotions and lower life satisfaction levels, on average, not to mention more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. (Source: Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, “How Gratitude Beats Materialism,” Greater Good Magazine, January 8, 2015.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Struggle with avoidance? We all avoid things sometimes. It’s natural.

Do you tend to bypass that difficult task? Put things off until later—or never? Steer clear of that difficult somebody? Change that uncomfortable subject? Put off that hard conversation? Sidestep that brewing conflict? Maybe you put off going to the doctor to get that concerning symptom checked out.

It’s like your life is a game of dodgeball. When things get thrown your way, you dodge, duck, dip, and dive.

If you’re like others, perhaps you avoid things not only via your behavior but also in terms of your thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance is natural, a coping mechanism. But it can become maladaptive when it’s overused or used in the wrong circumstances.

Many people avoid too many things and too often. Sometimes it isn’t a conscious choice per se. It’s stimulus-response. Challenge-avoid.

The problem is that things often end up getting worse because of it. And it can become programmed behavior, a habit of sorts, affecting many things in your life, from your performance and leadership to your relationships and self-respect.

Avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things tend to fester, becoming much worse over time. For example, it can lead to even more anxiety and concern because you’ve allowed things to deteriorate further. Avoidance can also be frustrating to others, like spouse or colleague, and make things worse for them too, leading to new conflicts.

In the end, avoiding something leaves the core problem unaddressed. Avoidance can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern, a vicious circle.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Given all these damaging consequences, the question arises: What can you do about it?

Here are 17 ways you can break the bad habit of avoiding things:

1. Start by noticing your avoidance behaviors. If you start looking for them, you can bring them into your consciousness and begin addressing them intentionally. Such mindfulness is an important first step.

2. Seek the root cause of your avoidance behavior. What’s the deeper why behind it? Continue asking why until you’ve hit paydirt and there are no more deeper reasons. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it just feels easier to avoid things than to deal with them? Maybe you’re afraid of looking bad or failing so you decide to avoid it instead? Perhaps you believe you can avoid the anxiety associated with people or things if you avoid them?

3. Process your emotions. Giving yourself an emotional outlet will help you refrain from maladaptive avoidance. Resist the temptation to bottle your feelings up. Find ways to release them instead. Talk through your feelings or try journaling. Get some exercise to change your physiological state.

4. Divide the problem you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. That way, you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating.

5. Start with an easy task or small encounter to get momentum. This can also help you develop confidence.

6. Look for ways to boost your motivation for a better result, one that would leave avoidance in the dust. For example, consider all the ways that avoidance is holding you back from personal or professional excellence (e.g., by harming your relationships or impeding your progress toward goals). Or give yourself small rewards for addressing things.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

7. Reframe a situation to note the positives and refrain from focusing only on the negatives. For example, turn a problem you’re dreading into a puzzle you’re curious about solving.

8. Quiet your negative self-talk. Give yourself some grace and don’t let avoidance become yet another reason to beat yourself up. Practice self-compassion and replace your negative self-talk with a more charitable interpretation (e.g., we’re all a work in progress).

9. Practice your communication skills. This will help prepare you to deal more effectively with tough situations as they arise. With good communication skills, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself more assertively, and you’ll be able to engage in what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations.”

10. Set a deadline for taking action. Commit to addressing it by a certain date and time so it doesn’t keep slipping into a squishy future that somehow never arrives.

11. Build action habits. Through consistent actions, you change your identity to a “doer.” You change your self-concept to someone who addresses things upfront instead of avoiding them. (See my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented.”)

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

12. Recognize that addressing something you’ve been avoiding can make you feel powerful. It can give you a sense of agency and accomplishment. Maybe it leads to momentum or greater confidence. Bear in mind that challenges can help you grow. They give you a chance to learn about yourself and others, all while developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you can view things that you previously avoided as opportunities for personal development and capacity-building.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

13. Work on your problem-solving skills. If you get in the habit of creatively exploring ways to solve challenges instead of avoiding them, you’ll build a valuable capacity for it and also your confidence when it comes to facing up to challenging situations in the future. You can do this alone or with a trusted friend or colleague. It may help to write down some ideas to prime your brain and serve as a reminder.

14. Develop your tolerance and flexibility. Build your tolerance of difficult emotions while acknowledging that there are some situations that may be too taxing for you, at least for now. If you have rigid ideas about the ways things need to unfold, it can make you anxious. Work on embracing the unexpected and appreciating the different ways people approach things—and all the different ways things can get addressed.

15. Work on improving your coping skills and strategies. Try deep breathing and self-monitoring. Engage your “observer: (practice watching your thoughts and developing your awareness of feelings, emotions, impulses, and recurring behaviors). Or get in the habit of moving from the metaphorical dance floor and getting on the balcony in difficult situations, as Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz advises. That means stepping back from the action and observing what’s going on from a higher perspective. Check in with your feelings. Get curious about the situation and ask yourself gentle, possibility-opening questions (e.g., “How might I address this? What would my best self do in this situation?”).

16. Resist your urge to avoid when it appears. Commit to being the kind of person who deals with things and not falling into the trap of avoidance.

17. Get support. Ask for help from a friend, mentor, coach, accountability partner, small group, and/or therapist.

Which of these practices will you try?

 Wishing you well with it!

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Addressing Avoidance

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” -Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.” -Brendon Burchard, author
  • “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” -Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Self-Awareness Is So Important–And How to Develop It

Article Summary: 

Self-awareness is critical in our life, work, and relationships, but many of us struggle with it. How to develop self-awareness.

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To be self-aware is to have a good understanding of ourselves, including conscious knowledge of our feelings, motives, and desires. Self-awareness (also known as self-knowledge) involves having a clear, accurate, and deep understanding of our emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. It also involves having a realistic view of ourselves, including a good and true sense of how we’re coming across to others.

In her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich defines self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She calls it the “meta-skill of the 21st century.” It may be an important skill in this century, but we’ve known about the importance of self-awareness for millennia.

“Know thyself.”
-inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE

According to researchers, there are two types:

  1. Internal (or private) self-awareness is about how clearly we see ourselves and whether we notice and reflect on our own internal state.
  2. External (or public) self-awareness is about being aware of how we appear to others.

 

Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is closely associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Pioneering psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management)—and emphasizes that it’s the foundation for the other three.

According to Goleman, self-awareness involves certain personal competences, including:

  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing our strengths and weaknesses
  • Emotional self-awareness: reading our own emotions and recognizing their impact
  • Self-confidence: having a good sense of our capabilities and self-worth

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Consequences of Lacking Self-Awareness

When we lack self-awareness, we have blind spots that get us into trouble, and we don’t know the underlying reasons for our actions. As a result, we’re likely to keep making the same mistakes, and we’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging our credibility.

Think of the compulsive talkers who don’t let others get a word in during conversations, unaware that people find it off-putting because it shows a lack of interest in others. Consider the frequent criticizers who spend so much time judging others instead of addressing their own issues.

Think of the people who keep bringing up politics out of the blue and saying things that hurt or offend the people around them without realizing it. Consider the people who speak loudly in public places, unaware that they’re disturbing everyone around them.

Think about the reserved introvert who unintentionally comes across as aloof or uninterested. Note the chronic complainer who never asks others how they’re doing. Consider the perpetual dreamers who never get around to the things they need to do to get started.

We’re all flawed—and prone to self-deception—so we should approach these cases with empathy and grace. But in many cases, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward helping people get out of their own way.

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet

 

20 Benefits of Developing Self-Awareness

The good news is that we can develop self-awareness, even if we’re low on it (as many are). Having a high level of self-awareness can help us in many ways. For example, it can:

  1. help us see our blind spots for the first time—or see them more clearly
  2. improve our decision-making
  3. help us communicate more effectively
  4. increase our confidence
  5. help us manage stress
  6. enhance our sense of personal control
  7. help us develop our social intelligence and relational awareness, in the process improving our relationships
  8. help us avoid wearing a mask or creating a persona that lacks authenticity
  9. increase our happiness and fulfillment
  10. help us recognize the ruts we’ve fallen into
  11. help us use more of our potential
  12. enhance our influence
  13. facilitate higher job satisfaction
  14. improve our ethical behavior, making us less likely to lie, cheat, or steal
  15. help us avoid looking to others too much for what we should do
  16. help us find good work that’s a good fit for us—and know what work we should avoid
  17. help us understand what makes us come alive and what drains us
  18. help us discover our purpose and what feels meaningful
  19. help us answer the question of what we should do with our lives based on what we’re good at and how we can best add value to others
  20. help us connect with our dreams, including a vision of our ideal self, in the process invoking our energy and excitement for life

Developing our self-awareness is a necessary step in honoring our nature and becoming who we want to be instead of conforming to the desires of others. It’s also a necessary step in developing self-acceptance and self-compassion. Developing self-awareness also helps illuminate our “shadow side”—the parts of our personality that we don’t want to admit—which is a necessary part of human development.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Why Self-Awareness Can Be So Hard

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness via multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants. She describes their results as follows:

“…even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality:
We estimate that only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

Why is this so hard? Several reasons.

We’re subject to all sorts of influences from our family and friends, and from our culture, that cause us to question who we are and pull us away from it. We’re confused by the cultural influences that don’t align with our own values. Sometimes, we end up defaulting to the values given to us by our parents, peers, or culture (e.g., values related to money or success) and rarely take the time for self-inquiry—or to consider the downsides of those values and whether there may be better alternatives.

It’s hard to admit our weaknesses and face them. Being self-aware often hurts, so we tend to avoid it. This is the work of our fragile ego in defense mode.

We’re used to hiding tender parts of ourselves when we don’t feel safe admitting or revealing who we really are. We fear harsh judgment by ourselves or others.

We’re too busy or overscheduled, so we don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

We tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters instead of pausing to reflect on our inner state and how we may have contributed to things.

We’re accustomed to leaping right into action instead of having the patience and humility to inquire into the deeper reasons for things and our self-sabotaging patterns.

We feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s too painful to look at our shortcomings, so we remain in denial.

 

How to Develop Self-Awareness

Clearly, developing self-awareness is difficult, for many reasons. But given all its powerful benefits, it’s worth our focused and ongoing attention.

So, how to develop self-awareness? Before answering that, we’re wise to ask: Awareness of what, exactly? What does self-awareness include? Ideally, it includes our life story, purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, emotions, motivations, needs, desires, successes, curiosities, weaknesses, shadow sides, traps, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Given that, here are things we can do to facilitate greater self-awareness:

Develop a propensity for frequent self-reflection (1), including taking time to reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Also, pay attention to what we love and long for, and what makes us come alive. This requires a commitment to self-inquiry and an intentional discovery process (what I call “discover mode”), including listening to our inner voice.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.”
-Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and writer

Seek input and guidance from family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Ask for honest feedback, including about our weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this should include “360-degree reviews.”

Convene a small group to facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things in members’ lives. Make sure the conversation includes self-reflection with input from the group, so participants have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment and search for patterns.

“…inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter:
inner work can be helped along by community.”
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Try using the Johari Window. It’s a framework that helps us identify what’s known to ourselves (or not) and what’s known to others about us (or not). See the image below.

Source: Adobe Stock

For many of us, we don’t let many people see our true selves (limiting what shows up in the upper left “Arena” quadrant). Also, we may have several blind spots—things that are known by others about us that we’re not aware of (in the upper right quadrant). Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself (your main characteristics) and then having one or more people who know you well do the same for you. Then, compare the lists to see the extent of overlap on the different lists. One goal of this work is to get us to show more about ourselves to others, in the process shrinking how much of ourselves we hide or that remains unknown to others.

Journal intentionally, since it can help us reflect on our feelings and experiences, sometimes uncovering insights or patterns.

Take time for renewal and sanctuary, including daily restorative activities (e.g., gardening or yoga) and places or practices of peace that help us recenter our hearts. Without time for renewal and sanctuary, we’ll be too scattered and frazzled to maintain self-awareness.

Take assessments that facilitate our self-awareness and personal growth. Examples include:

 

Conclusion

Self-awareness is sometimes painful—like when we discover hard truths about how others see us or first learn about major blind spots. Still, it’s well worth it. Without self-awareness, we’re likely to fall into several traps—and perhaps remain in them unknowingly, blind to our unhappy predicament.

Developing self-awareness can help facilitate real growth and development—and sometimes breakthroughs. We can only grow and develop when we have the courage to admit the traps we’re in and acknowledge our shadow side.

As we commit or recommit to developing our self-awareness, we’re wise to consider where many people get it wrong and trip up. Here are three final cautions about this process of becoming more self-aware:

First, self-awareness isn’t only about introspection and talk. The real value comes when we take action in the world based on a high level of self-awareness, such as when we build our life and work around our strengths and find viable workarounds for our weaknesses and blind spots, like asking for help from people who are strong in those areas.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
-Witold Gombrowicz, Polish writer

Second, self-awareness isn’t only about the self. It’s also about the self in the larger context of our lives, including our family, friends, community, work, convictions, and commitments. As Quaker teacher Douglas Steere wisely noted, the ancient question “Who am I?” inevitably leads to the question “Whose am I?”

Third, our identities aren’t fixed. We’re multifaceted and dynamic, so our self-awareness needs to keep up with the changes in our inner and outer lives. New challenges and changes will continue—both imposed on us and chosen by us—giving us opportunities for more depth and insight in our quest to know ourselves so we can live more fully and freely.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself, and how can you be sure?
  2. Do you keep falling into old traps and patterns that hold you back, indicating that you may have some blind spots?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly and truly being open to it?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business…. It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being…. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far….”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

 

Related Books and Videos

  • Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
  • Tasha Eurich, Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More than We Think
  • William L. Sparks, “The Power of Self-Awareness,” TEDx Asheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDx Mile High

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “Full wise is he that can himself know.” -Chaucer, 14th century British storyteller
  • “If a man does not know himself, how should he know his functions and his powers?” -Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer
  • “Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, poet, scientist, and statesman
  • “The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American essayist
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “Most folks go through most days on automatic pilot and don’t reflect upon it. When you say, ‘Why did I do that? What was that in service to inside of me? What old button, or issue, or agenda did that hit in me? When have I been here before?’ these are questions that begin to open up the mechanism working within each of us. And through that, you gain some greater sense of self-awareness. And with that, the potential for a great sense of freedom in how you live your life.” -James Hollis, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(1) Caution: introspection is helpful but can sometimes lead us astray, especially when we use it to ask the wrong questions. Based on data from her research on the most self-aware people, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends asking ourselves “what” instead of “why” questions to improve the value of our introspection. The “why” questions (e.g., “Why do I feel so bad?”), she notes, often concern unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives, and our instincts about them are often wrong. What’s more, those “why” questions tend to invite negative thought patterns, including rumination. Better questions, she proposes, are “what” questions: “What are the situations that make me feel bad? What do they have in common? What are the patterns?” Those “what” questions are more likely to lead to productive insights. (Source: Tasha Eurich, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (And How to Cultivate It),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Reframing to Change Our Outlook

reframing

Article Summary:

Many of us suffer with a large volume of negative thoughts. Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. On the power of reframing.

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Many of us are walking around much of the time in a mild state of anxiety, frustration, or negativity, and it colors almost everything we think and do. Our thought-streams are heavy with negative self-talk, worrying, rumination, and harsh self-judgment from our unhealthy propensity to engage in flawed and superficial comparisons. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias: we tend to over-focus on negatives and underweight positives.

One factor at work here is the prevalence of cognitive distortions, which occur when our thought patterns are flawed or irrational—and usually unhelpful or even damaging. Common cognitive distortions include:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Discounting the positive
  • All-or-nothing thinking: imagining there are only great or terrible outcomes to a situation
  • Blaming: finding fault with others or circumstances instead of looking within
  • Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion
  • Overgeneralizing: seeing negative events as an ongoing pattern of problems
  • Mind-reading: making assumptions about what others are thinking (e.g., that people are judging us negatively), with little or even no evidence
  • Mental filtering: focusing only on negatives and ignoring positives
  • Emotional reasoning: drawing conclusions or labeling ourselves from how we feel (e.g., leaping from “I felt stupid in that meeting today” to “I am stupid”)
Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”
-Byron Katie, Loving What Is

The problem with such thinking traps and cognitive distortions is that they have an array of negative influences, including:

  • loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility
  • sense of helplessness
  • more stress
  • lower confidence, wellbeing, and joy
  • reduced motivation
  • lower performance
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is also dangerous in teams and organizations, because such negative thinking can become normalized and spread rapidly through groups, poisoning the culture. Whole teams can get stuck in downward spirals of negative thinking.

What to do about it? Enter cognitive reframing.

 

Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing—also known as cognitive restructuring—entails shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a more helpful perspective. With such reframing, we can replace flawed or destructive thought patterns with better ones. In doing so, we can change the way we view people, situations, and even memories—and thus our experience of living and our behavior.

The essential idea behind reframing is that the frame through which a person views a situation determines their point of view. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes, and thinking and behavior often change along with it.-Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Reframing

When our mental frameworks are causing us distress, cognitive reframing can help us shift them to more helpful ones. This has all sorts of benefits, including positive effects on our mood, mental health, general wellbeing, and self-esteem.

Reframing can help us promote gratitude and appreciation, attract new opportunities, strengthen relationships, reduce stress, and manage loss and grief. Perhaps this explains why cognitive reframing is used to treat a variety of conditions, including: addiction, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, pain disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and stress.

 

Practical Reframing Approaches

Reframing is something we can all do, whether we’re students, parents, workers, salespeople, managers, or CEOs. It’s relevant across all areas of life, from personal happiness and marriage to teamwork and work performance.

There are many different reframing approaches. Here are several of the main ones:

Asking questions and investigating the evidence. When we’re experiencing negative thought-streams, we can ask ourselves if there are other ways to look at the situation. What evidence supports this thought, and what evidence contradicts it? If we’re judging ourselves harshly, we can ask what our manager, colleagues, and/or staff would say about our work.

Puzzle framing. We can reframe problems not as weights that bring us down but as puzzles to be solved. Problems are a downer, but puzzles come with challenge, fun, and mystery. Here, we can take a cue from Quincy Jones:

I don’t have problems. I have puzzles….
I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses me out.”
-Quincy Jones, record producer, songwriter, and composer

Reframing failure. A manager who sees people on the team making mistakes can jump right into corrections and reprimands, or the manager can reframe it as evidence that team members are stretching themselves, trying new things, and attempting to innovate. All these, of course, are essential for high performance over the long haul.

Three gifts. In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes about the “three-gifts technique”: when facing a bad situation, we brainstorm three scenarios in which that situation could turn into an opportunity or even a gift. It could take days, months, or years to unfold, but the situation ends up having benefits. Example: the head of sales of a company that had recently lost its biggest customer was initially skeptical about this exercise but, with some thought, she realized:

  1. It could be a wake-up call for the company that it’s losing its edge, thereby triggering more urgency in new product development, which could attract many more clients over time.
  2. The loss could help the sales team be more open to new skill development.
  3. It could free up the service staff to provide better service to existing customers, resulting in more referral sales.

Gratitude recasting. Here, we change the focus from a regret or loss to what we’re grateful for. Example: If a grandparent regrets not having had enough time with the grandchildren when they were younger, a recast could be: I’m grateful for the time we did spend together, and we still have time to get to know each other and do fun things.

According to researchers, subjects who engaged in grateful recasting had more healing, closure, and redemption as well as less unpleasant emotional impact from upsetting experiences. They also demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why a bad event happened, whether it could’ve been prevented, and whether they caused it.

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity.”
-Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis

“The work.” In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie notes that we’re all a mirror of our own thinking coming back at us. Her methodology of “inquiry,” with its four questions, is a powerful form of reframing. When we have a troubling thought, she notes, we can ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can we absolutely know it’s true?
  3. How do we react when we believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would we be without the thought?

Context reframing. Here, we change the way we think about the set of circumstances around our challenges. For example, if our flight is delayed, instead of focusing on the hassle, we can pause to consider the larger context of having so much wealth and privilege to be able to fly to places we want or need to go.

Stop taking things personally. In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz notes that most of the things we experience in the world aren’t directed toward us, though we assume they are. Too often, we’re quick to take personal offense and let resentment fester. Instead, we should consider the likelihood that the situation had nothing to do with us: perhaps the person who made that comment was having a bad day or is struggling with some personal challenges or past traumas—or just lacks emotional intelligence or social grace?

Multidimensional view. In her book, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life, Laurie Polich Short recommends viewing things through four lenses:

  1. Big view lens, to view our lives from a broader perspective
  2. Present view lens, to help us see what we’re missing now—and what each moment can bring
  3. Rear view lens, to help us see how we’re wired and how our past is affecting us so we can retain faith for what’s ahead
  4. Higher view lens, to help us see that our life may be given to us for a purpose much bigger than ourselves, in the process seeing more of what God wants us to see
Where we choose to focus makes all the difference in what we see.”
-Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Examples of Reframing in Action

Those reframing approaches can lead to an incredible array of possibilities in virtually all areas of our life and work. Here are examples of this phenomenon in action in common scenarios:

If we’re stuck in traffic, instead of getting frustrated, we can appreciate the opportunity to practice deep breathing or listen to nice music or interesting podcasts.

When facing a challenging situation, we can ask ourselves questions like: Is there another way to look at this? What are some other possible reasons for it? What would I say to a friend faced with this?

If we have limiting beliefs, we can simply add the word “yet” to our thoughts about them or change the focus to things we know we can do. For example:

Limiting Belief Reframe
“I can’t do this.” “I can’t do this yet.”
“I’ve never led anyone before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out. I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
“I’m not good enough to manage this project.” “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable. And I have what it takes to figure this out.”

If we’re feeling helpless, we can change our focus from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to address our challenges, much like becoming a detective trying to solve a mystery.

If we’re feeling stuck, we can realize that we’re never truly stuck because we always have the capacity to generate new ideas, as Dave Evans and Bill Burnett point out in their book, Designing Your Life.

When feeling nervous about public speaking or leading a meeting, we can change our focus from fears of screwing up and being embarrassed to a more positive frame: Great, all this adrenaline shows that I care and will give me the energy to share my passion for this subject.

Every single important thing we do is something we didn’t use to be good at,
and in fact, might be something we used to fear
.”

-Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author

If we’re struggling with a daunting transition, we can view it as a challenge to overcome or even an exciting opportunity for learning, growth, and adventure.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman

If we’ve been handed a tough assignment at work, instead of dreading and resenting the pressure, we can view it as an opportunity to learn something new and raise our profile by adding more value to the team.

When we receive tough feedback or criticism, instead of shutting down and feeling resentment or self-righteousness, we can extract value from the feedback, noting that it can help us improve—and that it shows the person cares about our development.

If team members are feeling frustrated and disempowered, they can reframe their mindset about their role (and manager). Too often, workers give too much deference to their managers or are too quick to abdicate responsibility for what’s happening in the organization, blaming people in positions of authority. The best workers do all they can to help the organization achieve its goals. This means taking risks, shaking things up, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, asking tough questions, and letting their manager know what they need to succeed).

If managers are concerned about conflict on a team, they can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence. (See my article, “Why Conflict Is Good—And How to Manage It.”)

If we’re struggling with micromanagement or a need to swoop in and save people, we can change how we see a situation involving someone in need. For example, instead of believing the thought that the person will suffer without our help, we can note how the person can develop new coping skills that will serve them well going forward.

 

Conclusion: The Power of Reframing

Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. This will help us become more resilient.

For reframing to work, we must learn to recognize distorted thinking and have the motivation to change our ways. Since our thought patterns can be deeply engrained, sometimes it’s wise to get help from a therapist or coach.

Reframing can be the difference between a life of frequent disappointment and one with more satisfaction and ease. What’s more, its effects are cumulative. Positive thought-streams have favorable effects that ripple out, helping us and others.

Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it.”
-Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles and Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Power of Reframing

  • “It’s only a thought and a thought can be changed.” -Louise Hay, author
  • “The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” -Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned meditation teacher and best-selling author
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust, The Captive
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Everything can be taken from a man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “The secret to living your best life lies largely in your ability to see all that is in front of you.” -Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything
  • “There is enough light for those who choose to see, and enough darkness for those who are of a contrary disposition.” -Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher
  • “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” -Matthew 6:23-23 NIV

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Great Sleep for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are three key drivers of our health and wellness.

No surprise there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on great sleep for health, wellness, and great work. (We covered nutrition and exercise in previous articles.) Sleep is the “sleeper” of the three—often overlooked but hugely important. I used to focus mostly on exercise and nutrition but have recently come to see how sleep really is the linchpin.

“Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
-Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Wellness Institute, Cleveland Clinic

 

Many People Struggle with Sleep

Many people struggle with not sleeping well. The National Sleep Foundation reports that about 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, 62% of U.S. adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, and 30% of Americans experience insomnia at some point over the course of a year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in four U.S. high school students gets the recommended amount of sleep per night. (1)

Of course, this is a worldwide problem. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, about 30% of adults report having had “some insomnia problems over the past year”—and about  10% report having chronic insomnia.

 

The Problem of Not Sleeping Well

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a form of torture. With poor sleep comes a wide range of risks and side effects. For example, it leads to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and depression.

Sleep loss slows our metabolism and triggers food and sugar cravings. (2) It elevates cortisol, a key stress hormone, and scrambles our blood sugar.

Poor sleeps impairs our memory—both short- and long-term—including our ability to consolidate learning during the previous day. It downgrades our mood, negatively affecting our relationships and parenting. And it reduces our productivity.

“When you are tired, you are not yourself. Well, at least not the best version of yourself.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Generally, sleep deprivation may facilitate or intensify all sorts of problems, including:

  • accidents
  • addictive behaviors
  • anxiety
  • appearance issues (e.g., dark circles under our eyes)
  • appetite surges
  • attention problems
  • blood pressure problems
  • concentration problems
  • confusion
  • depression
  • reduced enthusiasm about positive events
  • headaches
  • increased stress hormone levels
  • immune system suppression
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability
  • lower libido and sexual health in both sexes
  • memory lapses or loss
  • motivation drops
  • obesity
  • relationship problems
  • violent behavior
  • temper tantrums in children (and some adults)
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.”
-JoJo Jensen

According to a study in The Lancet, surgeons who had not slept the previous night took 14% longer to complete a task and made 20% more errors than those who had a full night’s sleep.

 

Effects of Poor Sleep on Leaders

For leaders, poor sleep can be an occupational hazard—especially if they work in an organization with a culture of burnout.

Too many leaders brush this aside. “Sleep is for wimps,” they say, or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“The Western workplace culture… is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”
-Arianna Huffington, Thrive

Unfortunately, poor sleep negatively affects skills and capacities that are important for leadership effectiveness, including:

  • ability to focus
  • cognitive speed
  • decision-making capacity
  • mathematical processing
  • performance on tasks

In a nutshell, being tired is a terrible state for leading and living. Importantly, sleep deprivation also makes us less ethical, according to researchers, in part by reducing our resistance to pressure. In his book, Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson notes that when we don’t sleep, our parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose a significant amount of their glucose, impacting our social control and ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

According to researchers Christopher Barnes, Brian Gunia, and Sunita Sah writing in their Harvard Business Review article, “people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.” In an experimental study, tired participants (after an all-nighter) were given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money. The result? Tired participants were more likely to abandon their morals for cash.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, distinguishes between what she calls “good tired” and “dangerous tired”:

“Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years)…. it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail ‘just one more time’ before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night.”

Our state of sleep deprivation impairs our judgment and can bring out the worst in us, causing damage to our health, families, teams, and organizations. (See my article, “The Problem with Tired Leaders.”)

“We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.” -Tony Schwartz, “Sleep Is More Important than Food,” Harvard Business Review, March 3, 2011

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Great Sleep

By contrast, quality sleep comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. appearance
  2. bones
  3. cognitive function
  4. disease prevention
  5. emotional regeneration
  6. hormonal balance
  7. immune system function
  8. inflammation (reduction)
  9. longevity
  10. memory
  11. performance
  12. relationships
  13. sexual function, including desire and arousal
  14. skin health
  15. stress resilience
  16. weight loss
“Sleep… will magnify the results you get from your food and movement in the most amazing way if you allow it to…. Sleep is the secret sauce. There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.” -Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Good sleep is also a driver of athletic performance. It’s no secret that top organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to professional sports teams, as well as athletes (including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Phelps), musicians, and artists, have worked to tap into the amazing power of great sleep. Stanford University researchers tested members of the men’s varsity basketball team after increasing the amount of sleep they got and discovered the following:

  • increased speed (faster sprint times)
  • improved shooting (9% improvement in free-throw and three-point shooting)
  • faster reaction times
  • less fatigue
  • improvement in mood and overall physical wellbeing

According to Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level” before their sleep time was extended. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt…. It’s not that they couldn’t function… but that they might not have been at their full potential.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Top Strategies for Getting Great Sleep

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for getting great sleep:

Make sleep a priority, since it affects everything we do so profoundly. Turn the good sleep practices below into rituals and habits. Reject a “grind culture” at your office or a mentality of toughing out late nights.

Get enough sleep, consistently. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. (1) Find out what works best for you by learning to listen to your body. If in doubt, start by increasing sleep by just 30 minutes for a few days and see how it feels—or take a short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day, if possible.

Awaken early in the morning. According to researchers, waking early can help reduce negative thoughts and set us up for better quality sleep the next night. Also, “night owls” tend to sleep less overall than early risers, and they’re more likely to develop sleep disorders.

Get adequate sunlight during the day—including some sunlight as early as possible after waking up. Our sleep cycle depends in part on the amount of sunlight we get. Not getting enough sunlight can disrupt our circadian timing system.

Get adequate exercise. When we sleep, our body releases many beneficial hormones and does the repair work necessary for us to benefit from our workouts. The relationship between sleep and exercise is powerful—and bidirectional. Getting good exercise—including strength training two or three times a week—helps us sleep better, and getting good sleep helps us exercise and perform better. Morning workouts are ideal for the best sleep, so be sure to move in the morning even if you do your main workout in the afternoon. When we exercise early in the day, it gets us in a good cortisol cycle. Meanwhile, exercising too late in the evening raises our temperature, which can make it harder to fall asleep.

Limit screen time, especially before bed. According to researchers, using electronic devices before bed can negatively affect our alertness and our circadian clock. Shawn Stevenson notes that eliminating screen time at night is “likely the number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately.” If we shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime, we help our bodies normalize our natural melatonin and cortisol levels. Little things like blue light blockers and “Do Not Disturb” phone settings can go a long way.

Manage caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that excites our nervous system, and it causes our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which work against our sleep. If taken in excess, caffeine can make us jittery and can cause insomnia. It has a “half-life” of between five to eight hours. Avoid energy drinks because they provide excessive amounts of caffeine (e.g., 80-300mg) and use natural sources (e.g., green and black tea or coffee) instead. According to many experts, most people need a caffeine curfew of 2:00 p.m. (3)

Calm our inner chatter. Many people have difficulty falling asleep because their mental wheels won’t stop spinning. Many struggle with overthinking, rumination, and worrying. Simple calming or relaxation techniques can go a long way. For example, try deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming apps (e.g., the Calm app), stories, or audiobooks.

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
-Charlotte Bronte, English novelist

Create a sleep sanctuary—a cozy place that your mind and body associate with rest and sleep. That begins with a comfortable bed with a quality mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Set it up for peace, quiet, and comfort.

Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Start winding down 30 to 45 minutes before bed. Do something relaxing, like listening to light music, journaling, or reading a book (ideally, fiction, poetry, or something spiritual—and not something that will generate stressful thoughts about work).

“A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times.
It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.”

-Jessica Alexander, National Bed Federation

Maintain a regular bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule (both going to bed and arising in the morning—even on weekends) can dramatically improve our sleep quality because our body gets into a good sleep rhythm.

Set an eating and snacking curfew well before bedtime. It’s best to give our bodies at least 90 minutes to digest food before bedtime—and even better with more time.

Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol can significantly disrupt our REM sleep and prevent our brain and body from fully rejuvenating. When we do consume alcohol, it’s best to stop at least three hours before bedtime.

Remove devices from the bedroom. According to a 2023 Reviews.org survey of 1,000 Americans, 60% sleep with their phone by their sides (e.g., nightstand) at night, and many check alerts and notifications in the middle of the night, seriously disrupting their sleep. Watching television before bed also disrupts our sleep cycle.

Make sure it’s dark when we sleep. Light sources can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly by throwing our biological clock out of whack. We sleep better when it’s dark enough that we can’t see our hand in front of our face. Blackout curtains are a good investment.

Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom—ideally, between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16-20 degrees Celsius.

Use technology to measure sleep duration and quality (e.g., sleep tracking devices), and make adjustments accordingly.

 

What to Do If You’re Having Trouble Falling Asleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed after a while and go do something relaxing (without a screen), instead of just lying there and getting frustrated. If there’s a lot on your mind, such as unfinished projects or ideas about how to address a problem, write it down. That way, you can avoid having your working memory churning on it. (A caution: Don’t try to suppress unwanted thoughts because that only makes it worse. Consider scheduling worry time in the afternoon and writing down worries and stressors so they’re captured on paper—leaving no need for your mind to keep spinning on them. See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”

Other recommended practices:

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for about your day while lying in bed.
  • Count backward from 100 to zero as slowly as possible.
  • Check with your doctor for underlying sleep conditions (e.g., sleep apnea) if the problem persists.
  • When needed, take natural, herbal supplements (e.g., nighttime tea with chamomile)—and don’t go straight to sleeping pills or melatonin. (4)

 

Conclusion

In the end, sleep is pivotal to everything we do. It affects everything. If “sitting is the new smoking,” as they way, then sleep is the new cool. So hit that pillow without guilt and enjoy the experience of life when we feel rested, fresh, calm, energized, and ready for the day. Our lives are too important to spend them in a foggy state of fatigue.

Wishing you well with it!
Gregg

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)
  • Arianna Huffington, Thrive (Harmony Books, 2014)

Podcasts:

  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sleep

  • “Sleep is a necessary part of life, though most of us scrape by with as little as possible. Most physicians and public health officials ignore it as a cornerstone of optimal health…. It turns out that sleep can make or break your ability to lose weight, age slowly, prevent cancer, and perform at a high level.” -Dr. Sara Gottfried, physician-scientist
  • “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” -Thomas Dekker, English dramatist
  • “Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete, and it is something that I continue to rely on every day.” -Tom Brady, American football quarterback and champion
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” -Irish proverb
  • “Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” -Frank H. Knight, economist
  • “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” -E. Joseph Cossman, inventor, entrepreneur, and author
  • “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down.” -David Welsh, a University of Washington professor
  • “With too little sleep, people do things that no CEO in his or her right mind would allow.” -Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • “Tired officers are always pessimists.” -General George S. Patton, World War II U.S. Army General
  • “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton, former U.S. president (famous for getting five hours of sleep a night)
  • “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” -John Steinbeck, writer

 

References

(1) Most teens should get between eight and ten hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our life. Here are guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep by age group:

  • newborns: 14-17 hours
  • infants: 12-15 hours
  • toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • school-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • adults: 7-9 hours

(2) Sleep deprivation triggers higher activity in our amygdala, an emotional and reactive part of the brain associated with our motivation to eat. Also, it reduces activity in the more advanced parts of the brain associated with judgment, maintaining social appropriateness, social control, and decision-making.

(3) Those who take too much caffeine are wise to consider reducing it gradually, because it can have withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, and fatigue. Few people realize that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine (e.g., 2 to 15 milligrams), though much less than regular coffee.

(4) Stevenson points out that many experts agree that melatonin supplements can be very effective for some people, but it’s a hormone that has a risk of potential problems, including down-regulating our body’s natural ability to use melatonin on its own and creating a dependency. Many people turn to sleeping pills prematurely without understanding the causes of their sleep problems (e.g., too much caffeine, irregular schedule, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, physical problems, side effects from other medications, etc.).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.

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Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.

 

The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

 

Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No

 

The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor, author
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives in several traps pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address our traps and stop avoiding them, the better.

 

Common Traps of Living

Below are 15 of the most common traps of living, based on my data set of more than 900 people around the world who have taken my Traps Test as of August 2023. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Overthinking: excessively analyzing something, dwelling on possibilities and second-guessing.
  2. Overwork: working too much consistently despite negative effects on other priorities; potential burnout or work addiction
  3. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  4. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  5. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  6. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  8. Indecision: wavering between different courses of action and having trouble deciding and moving on.
  9. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  10. Avoidance: not facing up to difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  11. Numbing: shutting out feelings by keeping yourself preoccupied with other things (e.g., work, technology, substances).
  12. Complacency: allowing yourself to lose urgency and motivation.
  13. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  14. Not Moving On: holding on too long to a bad situation or relationship and not advancing forward.
  15. Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion.

(Take my Traps Test to see the full list of the common traps of living.)

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

See my Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your top traps?
  2. And what will you do about them, starting today?
“It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.”
-Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps, and we all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development.

Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway, novelist
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” -Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” -Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” -Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” -Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

(Note: This article has been updated several times as I’ve learned more from my global data set of people taking my Traps Test.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Workaholism–And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

Everything you need to know about workaholism (work addiction): its prevalence, signs, causes, and costs—and how to overcome it.

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Many people today struggle with workaholism—being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it

Psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholism” in 1971 in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. He defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” In 2014, researchers C.S. Andreassen, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen defined work addiction as “being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health.”

According to researchers, work addiction has both a behavioral component (working long hours consistently) and a psychological component (being obsessed with work). It’s a serious problem for many.

 

A Cautionary Tale About Workaholism

Gerald Chertavian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts with a strong work ethic. After business school, he moved to London to be with his fiancée. Following a frustrating first job experience there, he was approached with an opportunity to buy into a technology company on the verge of bankruptcy. They had precious little to go on, but he decided to go for it.

The challenges were fierce, but Gerald was committed. For years, he pushed and pushed, until one day it was too much. As he told us in an interview for LIFE Entrepreneurs:

“I looked over the side of my desk in London. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t see the ground. It was just black. I couldn’t even see the rug below me. It was like looking into the abyss.”
-Gerald Chertavian

This talented and vigorous young man early in his career could have worked himself to death. It was a stark wake-up call.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Value of Hard Work

Concerns about workaholism shouldn’t be equated with a critique of hard work. There’s incredible value in hard work (especially in smart hard work), from opportunities for learning and growth to success and wealth creation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s another problem: sloth. Many people fall into the trap of not working hard enough and later come to regret it.

Aristotle famously wrote about the “golden mean” of virtue between two vices. So, between sloth and overwork, the golden mean is hard work—ideally work with purpose, passion, and impact. But that’s a far cry from work addiction.

Workaholism shouldn’t be conflated with hard work, a strong work ethic, dedication, conscientiousness, loving what we do, or occasionally working extra hard to complete an important task. These are all good. By contrast, workaholism takes us into the territory of preoccupation, compulsion, and addiction, with the associated loss of self-control and continuation of excessive work despite negative consequences.

If we love our work, that doesn’t mean we’re addicted to it. But if we’re a workaholic, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we work so much because we love it or because we need to when we actually don’t.

Workaholism is also not the same as having an overly demanding boss who piles way too much work on our plates—or as the excessive work sometimes demanded by startups, turnarounds, or crises. Work addiction, in short, is not the same as work overload. (That’s a different problem.)

 

The Prevalence of Workaholism

The prevalence of workaholism is hard to pin down because it’s hard to define precisely and even harder to measure. And even when it gets measured, there are challenges with getting nationally representative data sets.

Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans struggle with work addiction. Research from a nationally representative random sample in Norway using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale found that 8.3% of the population there struggles with work addiction.

These may not be huge percentages, but they add up to massive numbers of people. According to Zippia Research, 55% of Americans (55%) didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022.

Researcher Brene Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums.

 

Signs of Workaholism

How to know if we struggle with workaholism? It comes with a number of telltale signs, including:

  • feeling preoccupied with work even outside normal working hours (we can’t stop thinking about it)
  • being the first one in the office and the last to leave
  • not taking a lunch break and other breaks
  • working often on weekends*
  • working more than is needed or expected of them
  • having a hard time stopping work
  • feeling physical and emotional distress when we’re not working, much like the withdrawal symptoms from other addictions
  • lacking margin in our lives and suffer from “time poverty” (an acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time)
  • sacrificing time with our spouse/partner, children, and friends because we’re so consumed with work
  • suffering negative consequences from working so much, whether physically, relationally, or otherwise.

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a psychometrically validated assessment instrument developed by testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 different industries. See the image below and consider doing a quick check.

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

According to the research, workaholics tend to be status-conscious, hyper-competitive, and achievement-oriented. They have high standards (e.g., must be the best) and tend to be self-critical. Often, they have a strong need for success and external validation.

Workaholics may also struggle with close relationships, vulnerability, and intimacy due to a fear of disclosing flaws. And they may neglect their inner life given their focus on external achievements.

Edward Hallowell writes in his book, Crazy Busy, that it can become a habit so entrenched that it makes you “a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but you can’t escape.” According to Clockify, a company that helps organizations track how much time people spend working on tasks, the top ten traits of workaholics are the following:

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

Workaholism can show up in different ways. For some, it may be a standard compulsion that’s fairly consistent over time. For others, it gets progressively worse. And for others, it involves binge-working in fits and starts.

Some people are good at hiding their workaholism from others, knowing that it brings conflict or disappointment, so they sneak in work when others can’t see it.

According to researchers, workaholics often make things harder for themselves by placing more pressure on themselves, making their work more complicated than necessary, and hesitating to delegate work when possible or to seek social support when they’re struggling. They may also be attracted to high-pressure jobs with intense demands.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Causes: Where Workaholism Comes From

Where does workaholism come from? Researchers have discovered several sources. Here are the main ones:

Childhood causes. Many workaholics grew up with overly demanding or overly protective parents. This can set up long-term behavioral patterns that can be difficult to escape.

Our identity. Author Stephen R. Covey noted that some people have a work-centered identity. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that some people consider exhaustion a status symbol and view “productivity as self-worth.” Others have an achievement identity. Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author and chairman of the Coaches Training Institute, has identified what he calls a “hyper-achiever” as one of ten “saboteurs” that inhibit our effectiveness and enjoyment:

“The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Emotional causes. If we feel guilty or anxious when we’re not working, it’s easy to numb those feelings by working incessantly. Some people suffer from “productivity guilt”—having a constant nagging feeling that we should be doing more.

Personality factors. Many workaholics struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may have a “Type A” personality characterized by ambition, aggressiveness, and intense achievement striving.

Running from pain. At a deeper level, workaholism is sometimes more about running away from something that running toward the glories of work. There may be great emotional pain, discomfort, shame, or trauma driving it.

“…workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s an interesting question about the direction of causality here. It’s clear that workaholism can and often does lead to significant distress in our lives. But researchers have discovered that, for many people, workaholism is also a response to distress in their lives, such as emotional disturbance or anxiety. In other words, it’s caused by distress but also adds to distress, a double whammy.

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 Fear. Sometimes the compulsion to work and work comes from a place of fear—fear of not being enough or of disappointing people. Seen in this light, work addiction becomes a matter of overdoing things to avoid the things we’re afraid of (but too often doing damage in the process).

Motivational factors. If we’re highly motivated by extrinsic factors like financial or status rewards, we can tell ourselves that working all the time will bring us the satisfaction and happiness we crave. (See “The Most Common Myths About Happiness.”)

Cultural influences. Some organizations and even nations have a culture that lionizes work and achievement over other values. People living in different countries can have widely varying outlooks on the importance of work.

“American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction.”
-Arthur Brooks, From Strength to Strength

 

The Problem with Workaholism

Workaholism, like all addictions, can come with a high—sometimes devastating—cost. Here are some of the problems it can cause in different areas of our lives:

Workaholism can contribute to physical health problems, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • higher systolic blood pressure
  • insomnia

These are all serious problems. Notably, some languages now have words for “death from overwork” (karoshi in Japanese and guolaosi in Chinese).

It can also contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • higher levels of mental distress and emotional exhaustion
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

Workaholism can lead to relationship problems, including::

  • less time with family and friends
  • more work-family conflicts

Workaholism can have negative effects on our work, including:

  • more job stress
  • greater chance of burnout
  • lower job satisfaction
“Findings suggest that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as increased job stress, work–life conflict, burnout, decreased job and life satisfaction, and poor physical and emotional/mental health…. workaholism was not related to higher levels of performance or job satisfaction; rather, it was related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, lower job satisfaction, and poorer emotional/mental and physical well-being.”
-Malissa Clark et al., “All Work and No Play?”

Researchers note that work addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. That makes sense because we’re all human and have limits. At some point, there are diminishing marginal returns for the extra work put in.

Workaholics may get a short-lived rush from completing an important project, but they quickly turn their attention to the next item on their to-do list, placing them squarely on the hedonic treadmill.

Workaholism also leads to lower life satisfaction and more life regrets. In her work as a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware noted the top regrets of people who were in the process of dying. The second most common regret among her patients was this:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Her point here isn’t that hard work is bad in and of itself.

The problem is when we let our work crowd out so many other important things such as our health and close relationships with family and friends. By working too much, we’re optimizing for one aspect of our lives (our work) while harming other important aspects.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Secondary Effects of Workaholism

Unfortunately, the negative effects don’t stop there. There are also secondary effects of work addiction that spill over into other domains.

For starters, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions (e.g., to alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.).

According to empirical research, work addiction is also related to poor family relationships, family dysfunction, and marital dissatisfaction. Writer John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.

It can lead to neglecting children or missing family events and milestones (e.g., the birth of a child, sports tournaments, dance recitals, graduations). (See my article, “Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent.”)

Work addiction in parents can lead to problems with their children’s mental health. According to a 2022 study of 527 Lithuanian workers, “perceived work addiction of both mother and father was related to higher levels of work addiction of their adult child.”

And what are the opportunity costs of all these extra hours spent working instead of engaging in other worthy endeavors? For example, how can we take care of our aging parents and grandparents or struggling relatives if we’re so consumed with our work?

Also, our communities and nations suffer when many people are addicted to work. How can people find time to build community and participate actively as citizens when they’re working so much?

The physical exhaustion associated with work addiction can also lead to ethical lapses. According to former President Bill Clinton, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

What’s more, workaholism may be contagious in some workplaces. According to researcher G. Spruell, “Workaholism practiced by even just one member of a work group can suck the spirit right out of the team” and can cause “destructive competitiveness among coworkers.” Overly demanding leaders can create a toxic culture of workaholism in their organization, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, lower performance, and great personal damage and regret among workers.

 

What to Do About Workaholism

Addressing the problem is difficult because many workaholics are in denial about their addiction (see “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”)—and because many workplaces reward people for workaholic behavior.

“…work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
-Arthur Brooks, “The Hidden Link between Workaholism and Mental Health”

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to address work addiction:

Track our time. Carefully log how we spend time for several days (or a week). Then go back and review which activities give us energy and a sense of meaning, versus which ones drain us or seem pointless. Consider whether the amount of time we’re spending working versus addressing other important priorities accurately reflects our core values.

Be brutally honest with ourselves. Stop avoiding and pretending. Decide to push past self-denial and face the reality and implications of our choices.

Ask those who know us best. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see or admit but all too clear to others.

Set boundaries on our work time. Set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, except under extraordinary circumstances. According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with higher incomes and postgraduate degrees were most likely to say they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours. Though many people are rightly concerned about the exploitation of lower-income workers, it seems that many upper-income workers and managers are exploiting themselves.

Focus on only a few key priorities each day. Avoid the trap of being overly ambitious with expected accomplishments each day. That can set us up for a cycle of stress and overwork. Being realistic about daily and weekly accomplishments can help a lot. (Consider using the Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.)

Schedule important, non-work priorities. This can help make sure that other important priorities don’t get crowded out of our busy schedules.

Be intentional about time away from work. When we’re used to working hard, it can be easy to become unintentional and passive when we have free time. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but if we let it turn into mindless numbing with too much binge-watching or doom-scrolling, it will only make us more anxious and tired. Meanwhile, we’ll have lost important opportunities to connect with family and friends and to do fun things.

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author

Think about who we’re giving so much of our lives away to—and whether they’re worth it. In her article, “The Wages of Overwork,” writer and journalist Ann Helen Petersen writes, “Leaders are more than happy to exploit workers’ most anxious or engrained inclinations towards overwork.”

Make sure we’re giving enough time to the important people in our lives. According to research, our close relationships are the most important contributors to our happiness and quality of life.

Address the underlying issues that cause us to seek refuge in overwork. Do the inner work of discovering what’s causing us to engage in overwork and what we’re running from. These insights can give us clarity about the problem(s) we must address.

Be clear about our purpose and values. This helps us focus on what’s most important in our lives.

Develop good habits of recovery, renewal, and self-care such as:

Shift our focus from ego and personal achievement to connection with and service to others. Work addiction is often a selfish and lonely way of life. When we stay focused on connection and service, we can avoid getting trapped by our ego.

Remember our mortality. We will all die, and we don’t know when. Remembering this can help us determine what’s important in our lives right now.

Work with a therapist or join a support group (e.g., Workaholics Anonymous).

Regularly review how we’re doing in all the important areas of our lives. (See my Quality of Life Assessment—which you can set up for regular reminders.) By reviewing each area (e.g., family, health, friends, education, work, service, activities, finance), we can see which ones are neglected and problematic—and then take appropriate action.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”
-Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Coda: The Cautionary Tale

Remember Gerald starting into the abyss at 2 a.m. in his London office after years of overwork? Here’s what happened next:

“Right there, I realized that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with my life. Then I went home and gave myself grades as a father, husband, friend, community member, and businessperson, and I only got one A—and the A was as a businessperson. I said that’s the last time in my life I’m going to look in the mirror and give myself those grades, period.”
-Gerald Chertavian**

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you suffering from or at risk of work addiction?
  2. How is it affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices will you start with?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles & Traps to Workaholism

 

Postscript: Quotations on Workaholism

  • “If you think your busyness is some kind of prestige symbol, think again.” -Chris Brogan
  • “Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance, or success. Taken to an extreme, it is much more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear.” -Christine Carter
  • “You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.” -Anna Quindlen, writer
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee, author and advisor to top leaders
  • “Everyone knows that if a child’s parent dies, the child will suffer with sadness, loss, and possibly depression. No one thinks about this being the case when a child loses a parent to success.” -Jonice Webb with Christine Musello, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz, journalist, author, founder, The Energy Project
  • “My worry was that I would become addicted to success. It’s a delicate and dangerous zone—the interface between success and significance—to get as much success as you can without getting captured by it, becoming its prisoner.” -Bob Buford, Half Time
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. That is why… there is so much unhappiness, so much pain… They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people, and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

 

Sources:

  • Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(1), 7–24.
  • Morkeviciute M., Endriulaitiene A. Understanding Work Addiction in Adult Children: The Effect of Addicted Parents and Work Motivation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Sep 8;19(18):11279.
  • Spruell, G. 1987. Work fever. Training and Development Journal, 41: 41-45.

* We should note that in today’s economy, many people choose to work nontraditional hours, as opposed to the standard Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, choosing to do so isn’t in and of itself a sign of work addiction.

** Gerald Chertavian and his team built that company, Conduit Communications, into one of Britain’s fastest growing companies, eventually having more than 130 workers in several countries and earning more than $18 million in annual revenues. Six years later they sold it for a significant return and made millionaires out of many of their colleagues in the process. He later founded YearUp, a national 501(c)3 workforce development organization committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults—no matter their background, income, or ZIP code.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!