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

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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

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!

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!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

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.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

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.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

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!

How to Be More Action-Oriented

One of the biggest mistakes many people make is waiting too long before taking action. Not having enough of an action orientation.

What good are dreams, visions, and plans if we don’t act on them? To live well, we must get good at taking action. We have to stop hesitating. We have to stop waiting too long before acting.

 

12 Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented. For example, it:

  1. helps us learn and develop
  2. builds our confidence 
  3. helps develop our courage 
  4. changes our self-identity to someone with greater power and agency
  5. helps us learn about ourselves
  6. expands our sense of possibility
  7. builds momentum
  8. positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.
  9. yields better results over time and increases our probability of success
  10. invites serendipity
  11. gives us more chances at breakthroughs
  12. helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying

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 Be More Action-Oriented: Five Key Factors

While there are many benefits to being action-oriented, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires five key factors:

 

1. Motivation.

We must tap into our desire for a better future and summon our drive to achieve. Yes, that means getting off the couch and getting to work.

 

2. Courage.

Becoming more action-oriented requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. It requires a willingness to go for it despite the obstacles and risks.

 

3. A willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

Becoming more action-oriented means becoming more willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. We must tap into our warrior spirit.

 

4. A growth mindset.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a belief that we can develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents. If we have a fixed mindset, by contrast, we believe those things are static, and we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong and thus less likely to take action.

 

5. Clarity about what we want and where we’re going.

We can fuel our action orientation with a compelling vision of success, an inspiring dream of a better future.

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.

 

Conclusion

When we move from hesitation mode to an action orientation, powerful forces start swirling.

Also, isn’t it more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines, not knowing the ultimate outcome but engaging in the pursuit and struggle?

Truth be told, we never really know the perfect time for things, so we might as well get started sooner rather than later. Where does waiting get us?

What are you waiting for?

Image source: Adobe Stock

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough of an action orientation?
  2. Or are you hesitating too much?
  3. What more will you do to start taking bold action?

 

Tools for You

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.

 

Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic
  • “An ounce of action can crush a ton of fear.” -Tim Fargo, author, angel investor, and entrepreneur
  • “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
  • “Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author
  • “Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter and sculptor
  • “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author
  • “The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman and biographer
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur

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 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 Relationships in Our Lives

Article Summary: 

On the costs of social isolation and loneliness, the benefits of close relationships on our health, wellbeing, and happiness, and how to develop and maintain close relationships.

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Loneliness and disconnection are big problems these days for many. This year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” He noted, “Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” According to a Guardian article, about 20 percent of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives.”

“Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

Workaholism and the dramatic increase of screen time in our lives both aggravate the problem. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours, according to a recent Forbes report.

If we want to address the issues, first we need to understand them clearly, so let’s begin by defining the relevant phenomena.

 

Defining the Problem(s)

There are several factors at work, from loneliness and social isolation to solitude.

In his book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness, Dr. Murthy defines loneliness as “the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need.” He explains:

“It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.”

Loneliness is a normal human emotion. We all experience it, but it can become problematic when we feel it too often. Researchers have identified several types of loneliness, including:

  1. intimate loneliness: when we feel we don’t have trust and a mutual bond with an intimate partner or close confidante.
  2. relational loneliness: when we feel we don’t have quality friendships and social support.
  3. collective loneliness: when we feel we don’t have a network or community of people who share our interests and values.
“These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.”
-Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his book, Together

Loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation. Researchers define social isolation as a lack of relationships with others and little to no social contact or support. Obviously, such social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness.

Another related phenomenon is solitude. Some people conflate it with loneliness, but that’s a mistake. Researchers define solitude as a state of being alone and note that it can be voluntary or involuntary.

Solitude, it’s worth noting, can be positive. For example, it can help us have more time to reflect (a valuable thing when many of us lack margin in our lives) and lead to greater self-awareness. Also, solitude can help us develop authenticity and become more familiar with and comfortable being ourselves. Dr. Murthy points out that, perhaps surprisingly, solitude can help protect against loneliness.

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 Costs of Loneliness and Disconnection

Loneliness and social isolation can have adverse consequences in our lives. According to a large meta-analytic review of the research literature over more than 30 years by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues, “Actual and perceived social isolation” (i.e., living alone, having infrequent social contact, or having few ties with a social network) “are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” (1)

According to researchers, loneliness and disconnection are associated with:

  1. a rise in cortisol (a stress hormone)
  2. increased blood pressure
  3. elevated blood sugar levels
  4. inflammation
  5. worse immune functioning
  6. poorer health behaviors (such as physical inactivity, worse sleep, and smoking)
  7. faster aging
  8. higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia
  9. greater likelihood of premature mortality (1)

According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, poor or insufficient connection come with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among older adults. Also, lacking social connection can increase risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. (2) It can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers.

As if the physical health effects weren’t bad enough, loneliness and isolation often contribute to mental health challenges as well. For example, the risk of developing depression among adults who report feeling lonely often is more than double the risk among people who report feeing lonely rarely or never. When it comes to children, loneliness and social isolation elevate the risk of anxiety and depression both immediately and far into the future.

“Today it’s widely understood that one of the most important factors
in preventing and addressing toxic stress in children is healthy social connection.”
-Vivek H. Murthy, Together

Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. Many people have a tendency to go it alone through hard times and transitions, perhaps from their personality or upbringing. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for more hardship.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact…. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most…. disconnection spirals into more disconnection…. many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

 

The Benefits of Relationships

Forming and maintaining relationships, by contrast, comes with many benefits, according to researchers. British-Swiss journalist and author Johann Hari notes that just as bees evolved to be part of a hive, so we humans evolved to be part of a tribe. It stands to reason that there’s an evolutionary basis behind our urge to connect with others and form social bonds. Doing so helps us survive and reproduce, and it helps us access support in times of danger, distress, or trauma.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener,
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth

Social bonds are not just about surviving but also about belonging and thriving. Enter what psychologists call the “belongingness hypothesis”: that we have a “pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships.” (3) In a major review of the research literature on interpersonal attachments, researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary found that our need to belong has two main features:

  • first, we need frequent interactions with others that are positive or pleasant (or at least mostly free from conflict)
  • second, we want interpersonal bonds that are stable and continuing and marked by genuine concern (and, ideally, mutual concern)

According to researchers, social relationships benefit our immune system as well as our cardiovascular and endocrine (hormone regulation) functions. (4)

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.

 

Relationships and Happiness

Researchers have long tied the quality of our relationships to our wellbeing, happiness, and sense of fulfillment. The connection also shows up in surveys. According to a large 2023 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of U.S. adults say that having close friends is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. (5)

The research on the link between social connections and happiness is extensive and powerful. (See the Appendix.)

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California Riverside, “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional.” In other words, when we improve our relationships, we’re likely to experience positive emotions. Then, our enhanced feelings of those positive emotions are likely to help us attract more relationships (and ones that are of high quality). That, in turn, will help make us even happier. She calls it “a continuous positive feedback loop” and “an upward spiral.”

 

The Dark Side of Relationships

Though the benefits are clear, we should also note that not all relationships are positive or beneficial. Far from it.

Many people are in relationships that are poor, manipulative, abusive, or even toxic. And good people sometimes have profound flaws that not only get themselves into trouble but also hurt others. Of course, all relationships go through ups and downs, and it’s not realistic to assume that they’ll induce happiness all the time. In fact, many people get themselves into trouble by expecting too much from their relationships, as opposed to doing the inner work of intentional improvement. Researchers have noted that relationships can be extremely stressful. (6)

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.

 

How to Maintain Close Connections and Relationships

Since relationships are so important to physical and mental health and happiness, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture them. Here are things we can do to develop and maintain our relationships:

  1. Make time for important people in our lives and avoid the traps of perpetual busyness and workaholism that pull us away from them. Stop neglecting people and start cherishing them, starting with attention and quality time.
  2. Be honest, trustworthy, and reliable.
  3. Show interest in them.
  4. Open up and share our inner life, including our hopes, challenges, and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  5. Demonstrate loyalty and commitment to family and friends.
  6. Support family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  7. Show them we care with our actions as well as our words.
  8. Show them appreciation often.
  9. Express affection (e.g., holding hands, hugging, cuddling, massage). We humans are wired to need physical contact, and researchers have found a link between touch deprivation and many negative health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders.
  10. Celebrate good news with them.
  11. Be polite and considerate.
  12. Listen more and better.
  13. Be positive—and don’t fall into the traps of complaining/muttering, catastrophizing, or having a victim mentality.
  14. Strive to understand their context, interests, and perspectives.
  15. Seek common ground and mutual interests.
  16. Treat them as they wish to be treated.
  17. Show understanding and empathy.
  18. Stop blaming others so much and take responsibility for our part in things.
  19. Respect their preferences and boundaries.
  20. Manage conflict well, including forthrightly and deftly raising concerns or disagreements instead of letting them fester.
  21. Avoid disrespect and contempt.
  22. Don’t hold grudges.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
-A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

Conclusion

Our relationships with others are among the most precious gifts we can have in life. Too many people lose sight of that as they get lost in work, materialism, concerns or the day, or petty grievances.

One of the reasons that connections and relationships are so important in our lives—and such powerful contributors to our happiness—is that they get us out of our egoic shell. They get us to focus on others. It’s through our relationships that we can become better people by developing our empathy and compassion and giving part of ourselves to others.

Connect deeply and often. Do it gladly and urgently. You won’t regret it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you neglecting any important relationships in your life?
  2. Are you doing enough to develop new relationships?
  3. Are you doing enough to maintain your existing relationships that are important to you?
  4. What else will you do, starting today?

 

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

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Vivek Murthy, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness (Harper, 2020)
  • Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (Bloomsbury USA, 2018)
  • The Life-Changing Power of Connecting with Others,” episode 410, December 12, 2023 on the Feel Better Live More podcast with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

 

Appendix: Research on Connections and Relationships

The research on the centrality of close relationships to our health, wellbeing, happiness, and fulfillment is extensive. Here are some important studies:

 

Harvard Study of Adult Development

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for their entire adult lives. The study began in 1938 and is continuing to this day (after having multiple study directors) with its “Second Generation Study.” The study has evaluated mental and physical health and wellbeing, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality via interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, Professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) 70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

 

Study of the Happiest People

In a study of 222 undergraduates, screened for high happiness using multiple confirming assessment filters, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. They found that the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest people was the strength of their social relationships. (7)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life.
And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

World Values Survey

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are: social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy. (Note how many of these factors are social.)

 

The Blue Zones

Dan Buettner, explorer, author, and American National Geographic Fellow, has written extensively about the “blue zones”: regions in the world where people live, or have recently lived, much longer than average, including many centenarians. The blue zones identified are: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; Nuoro Province, Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, U.S.

According to Buettner, there are common patterns of behavior across the blue zones, several of which concern relationships:

  • Belong”: belonging to and participating in a faith-based or spiritual community and attending services regularly.
  • Loved Ones First”: putting their families first, committing to a life partner, investing in their children with time and love, establishing and maintaining family and social rituals, and keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home
  • “Right Tribe”: surrounding themselves with a tribe of people that they interact act with often and over their lifetimes (e.g., Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life).
“The most successful centenarians we met in the Blue Zones put their families first. They tend to marry, have children, and build their lives around that core. Their lives were imbued with familial duty, ritual, and a certain emphasis on togetherness.”
-Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Relationships and Connections

  • “Union gives strength.” -Aesop, “The Bundle of Sticks,” 550 B.C.
  • “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (English Standard Version)
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, statesman, and U.S. president
  • “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” -Erich Fromm, German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and sociologist
  • “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human.” -Jane Howard, Families
  • “We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved…. While loneliness engenders despair and ever more isolation, togetherness raises optimism and creativity. When people feel they belong to one another, their lives are stronger, richer, and more joyful.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “There are two pillars of happiness… One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” -George Vaillant, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, former director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman, USC professor
  • “What often matters is not the quantity or frequency of social contact but the quality of our connections and how we feel about them.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” -Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Wellesley College
  • “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” -U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (writing about an epiphany he had while in a concentration camp and thinking about his beloved wife, Tilly)

 

References

(1) Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.

(2) Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community,” Washington, D.C., 2023.

(3) Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

(4) Umberson, D. & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66.

(5) Kim Parker and Rachel Minken, “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family,” Pew Research Center, September 14, 2023.

(6) Walen, Heather R.; Lachman, Margie E. Social Support and Strain from Partner, Family, and Friends: Costs and Benefits for Men and Women in Adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2000; 17:5–30.

(7) Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

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!

Why We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever

meditation illustration

With the way we’re living in the world today, many of us struggle with stress, anxiety, and other harmful mental states. Many people struggle with worrying, overthinking, or ruminating. Some struggle with “monkey mind,” with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. In some cases, we’re too frazzled to have a rich inner life, and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the day and concerns of the world.

Enter meditation.

With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Meditation is a means of quieting and focusing our mind.

Though we can stop there if we wish, focusing only on the psychological benefits, we’d be missing a big part of the point—and the other potential benefits. As a time-honored practice in several religious traditions, with roots in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, meditation is a contemplative practice intended to help us achieve greater spiritual insight. It can awaken our compassion and help us feel more connected to others, potentially including all beings, God, and the universe. And for some, it can lead to a more mindful and enlightened state of awareness and existence.

That leads us to the deeper territory of mindfulness. So, what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to meditation?

 

Mindfulness

According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past.” Quite simply, we can think of it in terms of just three words:

Be here now.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

When we’re mindful, we’re fully aware of the present moment while calmly noticing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in or judging them. Mindfulness is both a state and a practice. When we’re practicing it, we deliberately refocus our attention on experiencing the present moment, or what spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle calls “the now.”

Mindfulness has seen a surge of interest in recent years—from mindfulness in the workplace (including at companies including Aetna, Alphabet, BlackRock, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, Meta, Pixar, and more) and mindful eating to the rapid spread of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs at medical schools, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.

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The Link between Meditation and Mindfulness

Though some people use the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same.

Meditation is a practice that can lead to a state of mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is one of several forms of meditation. (See below for examples of different types of meditation.)

 

The Benefits of Meditation

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to changes in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, brain imaging studies reveal that a half-hour of daily mindfulness meditation can increase the density of gray matter in the parts of the brains associated with memory and empathy.

According to researchers, meditation has many beneficial physical effects, including potential improvements in:

  • blood pressure
  • metabolism
  • immune response
  • sleep
  • longevity
  • alleviation of pain (including chronic pain)

Researchers also point to many mental and emotional benefits. For example, meditation, when done well over time, can:

  • improve brain activity and cognitive function (including mitigation of cognitive decline)
  • enhance attention, focus, and concentration
  • improve our mood and increase positive emotions that help provide resilience against negative emotions
  • help us cultivate self-awareness
  • promote empathy and compassion
  • decrease our anxiety and emotional reactivity
  • help us manage and reduce worrying and rumination
  • help improve performance on specific tasks (e.g., ones that require attention and accuracy)
  • help us manage our cravings (e.g., if we struggle with alcohol or overeating)
  • help us overcome burnout
  • help reduce symptoms of depression

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Different Types of Meditation

With its long history through the ages and its practice in different parts of the world, it’s not surprising that there are many different ways to practice meditation. Here are several different types of meditation:

Mindfulness meditation. We observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. Many people consider focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation as branches of mindfulness meditation.

Body scan meditation. We direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over different regions of our body, from head to toe.

Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation). We silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves and people we love—and perhaps other people we don’t know or even rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.

Transcendental meditation. We use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for a certain period of time or turn our attention within and end up with simple being, perhaps leading to what’s called “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

Death meditation (maranasati). We meditate on the fact that death can strike at any time. The idea is that being mindful of death can help us live well. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

 

Mindfulness Practices

Beyond meditation itself, there are also other things we can do to help make us more mindful. Here are several:

Deep breathing practices. During deep breathing practices (also included in many different types of meditation), we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include exercises like box breathing, in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.)

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—the key to all inner transformation.”
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in everyday activities mindfully. When we’re doing something—anything—we can place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. For example, we can focus on the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating, or on the sensations and smells of the dishes we’re washing.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The goal here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction so we can be more mindful about what we’re doing and experiencing.

Play the “game of fives.” Notice five things in our immediate vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to imagine that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that thing. When we do this, all our attention moves to what we’re noticing in the now. (1)

Find sanctuary. Find or create places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart—and build them into the flow of our lives. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our busy days and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, awe, and wonder.

 

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

 

Resources

  • Greater Good Science Center’s guide to mindfulness practices
  • UCLA Health guided meditations
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
  • Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
  • Calm app

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Meditation and Mindfulness

  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise.” -Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian Hindu monk, yogi, and guru
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and writer
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer
  • “You can learn more in an hour of silence than you can in a year from books.” -Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.” -Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

(1) A similar approach is the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.

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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!

What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living

Death. We have a tendency to avoid thinking about it, talking about it, and planning for it.

For many, death is their greatest fear. So much left behind. So many mysteries.

It doesn’t help that so many of us are cut off from nature in the modern developed world. We have so many amenities and conveniences and so much sheltering that we rarely encounter the natural phenomenon of death all around us, from the animal and plant kingdoms to the birth and death of galaxies and stars.

Because of our anxieties and fears, we revert to avoidance and denial. It can be a tough and painful topic, especially if we’ve lost those close to us or faced grave illnesses ourselves or among loved ones. Conceptually, we know death is inevitable. But that doesn’t make it easier to face.

 

Memento Mori

Enter “memento mori” (Latin for “remember that you will die”), an ancient practice of reflecting on our mortality to help us live better. The concept of memento mori has been a recurring theme in various cultures, civilizations, and religions throughout human history. (See the Appendix for a brief history of this concept from civilizations around the world.)

In ancient Rome, acknowledging death as an inescapable reality of human existence was seen as a means of promoting humility and wisdom. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome encouraged people to contemplate their mortality, because they believed that doing so would lead to a more virtuous and meaningful life.

This isn’t only a curious (if morbid) inheritance from the ancients. It’s also an intriguing and important finding from modern science—and a deep conviction of those who have had brushes with mortality. Case in point:

A review of 18 studies suggests that the prospect of death leads to greater appreciation of life, more rapid formulation of values, more thought about the meaning of life, and stronger social connections. As I have learned from the experience, when you consider how short life can be, you create more meaning in the world.”
-Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question

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 Reflecting on Our Mortality

Though reflecting on our mortality can be uncomfortable and even painful, it also comes with a slew of potential benefits. Here are the main ones:

Trap Avoidance. Reflecting on death helps us cut through many of the most common traps of living, including avoidance, complacency, conformity, disconnection, drifting, fear, indecision, materialism, postponing, and settling.

It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.
-Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist

Perspective. In a sense, death is the ultimate purveyor of perspective. It helps us see trivial things for what they are—and face up to the fact that much of what we worry about and consume ourselves with isn’t so important after all. Reflecting on death can help us stop fretting about things that are outside our control. And memento mori also reveals how “tempus fugit” (“time flies”)—how precious moments and chapters of our lives have come and gone like the current in a river.

Clarity and Focus. The thought of death makes us, in the words of author and educator Parker Palmer, “fierce with reality.” It can help us see what’s most important in our lives with much greater clarity. And it serves as a powerful focusing agent for us.

The confronting of death gives the most positive reality to life itself. It makes the individual existence real, absolute, and concrete. Death is the one fact of my life which is not relative but absolute and my awareness of this gives my existence and what I do about each hour an absolute quality.
-Rollo May, existential psychologist

Prioritization. In the face of death, we’re able to see what’s truly important and what’s not—and then act accordingly. For example, if we’re preoccupied with material accumulation, we may be forced to reconsider when we pause to recall that “You can’t take it with you,” as the saying goes.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
-Steve Jobs, entrepreneur

Inspiration and Motivation. Though some assume that pondering death may be depressing or even debilitating, it can actually be quite the opposite. Recalling that we won’t live forever can light a fire under us and get us moving and taking action on the things that matter most.

There’s something coming for all of us. It’s called death. Rather than fearing it, it can become one of our greatest counselors. So, if this was the last week of your life, what would you cherish most? How would you live? How would you love? What truth would you tell today?
-Tony Robbins, author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist

Courage. The perspective of mortality noted above, with its accompanying clarity and motivation, can fill our hearts with courage to start facing our fears and stop them from inhibiting our progress and development.

Appreciation. Reflecting on the inevitability of our death can also help us snap out of the trance of taking the beauty and wonder of life and the universe for granted. It’s easy to put our heads down and focus on what’s in front of us, but memento mori can help us tune back into the astonishing beauty and majesty of life. It can help us come back to savoring simple pleasures and being thankful for the people and experiences in our lives. And come back to peace and joy.

…it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident

Mindfulness. In our daily lives, it’s easy to descend into anxiety, stress, and distraction. There are a lot of inputs coming at us, so it’s harder than ever to remain in the present moment with ease, peace, and equanimity. Remaining cognizant of our mortality can help us remain mindful: fully present, calmly aware and accepting of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive to what’s happening around us.

Intentionality and Intentional Living. One of the most powerful benefits of maintaining awareness of our mortality is how it can help us craft our life and work intentionally. No more blind following of others; no more abdication of our quality of life to our overly demanding and underlying giving workplace. The end of passive acceptance and surrender. Time to wake up, take our life back, and design it according to our purpose and values—and with input from our heart, not just our head. In this sense, memento mori leads right into that other famous Latin expression, “carpe diem” (“seize the day”).

Every day, think as you wake up, ‘I am fortunate to be alive.
I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it
.’”

-Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Forgiveness. Reflecting on our coming death can also help us do one of the things we find most difficult: forgive. Such intentional release of resentment and anger can lessen the pain we feel from old wounds, while potentially also releasing others from a yoke. It may lead to greater understanding, empathy, or compassion. Importantly, it doesn’t have to mean forgetting or excusing, or reconciling. But it does mean greater peace—and getting in with our life instead of wasting precious time looking back.

Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior. Nor is it a
superficial turning of the other cheek that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is
the finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present,
free of contamination
from the past.
-Dr. Joan Borysenko, Fire in the Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism

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How It Works: Practical Approaches for Memento Mori

It’s one thing to acknowledge all the benefits of remaining mindful of our mortality. It’s another thing altogether to get beyond the avoidance, awkwardness, and pain, and actually bring this practice into our lives. So, how to go about it? Here are some suggestions:

Reading. Since this is so foreign to our modern sensibilities, one of the best ways to access the power of memento mori is through reading, including some of the classics and religious or spiritual readings. That can help us dial into this tradition and understand its value. (See below for a list of related books.)

Reminders and mementos. Since our tendency is to avoid thinking about death, it helps to have visual or tactile reminders in our everyday lives. Personally, I like using a memento like a necklace or a medallion that I can wear or carry around, but we can also use Post-It notes on our desk or mirror. Anything that keeps this though present in our lives.

Meditation and prayer. Prayer can not only connect us with a higher power but also help us tune into the finitude of life within the larger context of the divine. And meditation can do the same. (See the section below on Buddhist meditation on death, maranasati.)

Discussions. If we’re reluctant to think about it, sometimes it can help to talk about it with family, friends, or small groups. That way, we can help normalize it instead of avoiding it. We can also connect with others around this important topic while also learning about their views about life and death, not to mention more practical matters like making arrangements for funerals, financial and legal matters, and more.

Visits and volunteering. Spend time with people in the later chapters of their lives and with people facing health scares. In many cultures today, there’s too little interaction across generations, a big problem because it leaves so much of the hard-earned wisdom of older generations unknown and unshared. There’s also a huge problem in many cultures with loneliness. This is aggravated when people avoid spending time with those facing life-threatening conditions or the end of life because it’s awkward or they wouldn’t know what to say. (1)

Who takes care of these people when there isn’t anybody, when their support system is gone?
Do they fall through the cracks
?”

-Inez Russell, founder and CEO, Friends for Life

Religious services. Attend services at a faith-based institution of your choice and be open to how ancient teachings and scriptures may inform our lives today—and the importance of looking at life from a larger perspective.

Graves. Visit the graves of loved ones. By doing that, we can pay our respects and honor their memories, maintaining a relationship with them and listening to what they may have to teach us—albeit silently but often powerfully—about living.

Do you avoid reflecting on your mortality, or do you embrace memento mori as a life-enhancing perspective that can help us live well and focus on what’s important?

What will you do differently about this, 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 Articles

 

Related Books

  • Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
  • Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing
  • The sacred texts of your and other religions

 

Appendix: Reflecting on Death through the Ages

Through the ages, various cultures, religions, and philosophical, artistic, and literary traditions have urged people to reflect on their mortality and what it means for living well. Here’s a brief history:

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians had beliefs and traditions incorporating the concept of mortality and the impermanence of life. For example, they had rituals and customs around mummies (the preservation of dead bodies), tombs, and pyramids. The point of many of these revolved around the importance of preparing for the journey to the next world, acknowledging that life on Earth is temporary and encouraging people to lead a righteous life. Historians point to the Book of the Dead funerary text and ancient Egyptian art depicting scenes of death and judgment. Many Egyptians during that time had a strong belief in living in accordance with Ma’at (the concept of balance, order, and truth), which was seen as a way to ensure a favorable judgment in the afterlife—reinforcing the idea that how we approach this life has consequences for the next.

Hinduism

This religion, practiced by about 1.2 billion people today, addresses the concept of mortality and the impermanence of life. Several aspects of Hinduism emphasize the idea that all living beings will eventually die. With Hinduism, there’s a belief in samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the soul (atman) continues on a journey through various lifetimes until it reaches moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). The Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text, emphasizes the idea that the soul is eternal while the physical body is temporary. Practices like meditation and yoga, closely associated with Hinduism, can help people gain insight into the nature of their existence, including the impermanence of the body and the importance of spiritual growth.

Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, according to legend, when a victorious general took a victory march in the streets, a servant would follow him and repeat this: “Respice pose te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.” (“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you will die.”). The idea was that this would help the victorious general put things in perspective right at the time when his hubris was bound to trip him up. As noted above, memento mori is also an important precept of Stoicism.

Judaism

Judaism contains teachings and practices that address mortality and the impermanence of life. For example, the Talmud, a central text in Judaism, contains discussions and teachings about the transitory nature of life and the importance of living a righteous and meaningful life. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, includes reflecting on our sins and our mortality. It’s a time for Jews to repent and seek forgiveness, acknowledging the need for spiritual renewal. Judaism has funeral and mourning traditions that are symbolic of the impermanence of life. Also, consider the teachings of the Psalms:

You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’… you sweep people away in the sleep of death…. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away…. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
-excerpts from Psalm 90 NIV

Buddhism

Buddhism, practiced by about 500 million people today, emphasizes the recognition of suffering as part of life and the impermanence of all things. Together, these serve as a means to encourage mindfulness and a deep understanding of our shared human condition. The “Four Noble Truths” (the foundational teaching of Buddhism”) begin with the recognition of suffering (dukkha)—including the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death. One of the three marks of existence in Buddhism is anicca (impermanence).

A common Buddhist practice is maranasati (meditation on the fact that death can strike at any time). Meditating on or being mindful of death is essential to good living. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme,” presumably because it’s so important and powerful. Buddhism also includes funeral and death rituals, including chanting of sutras that emphasize the transient nature of life. In Buddhist art, the Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra) represents the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The “Five Remembrances” of Buddhism, which are statements about the nature of life, include the following:

I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.

Taoism

Taoism is a philosophical and spiritual tradition from ancient China that drew inspiration from nature, such as the changing of seasons and the cycles of life and death in the natural world. It encouraged people to cultivate a harmonious relationship with the ever-changing world around them. That mean embracing the Tao (often translated as “the Way” but meant to describe the fundamental principle underlying the universe). Living in harmony with the Tao involves accepting the natural cycles of life, including birth and death.

Taoism’s most famous concept is “yin and yang,” the dualistic nature of reality, which notes that life and death are two sides of the same coin. (Without death, there can be no life, and vice versa.) The concept of Wu Wei (translated as “non-action” or “effortless action”) suggests that we should go with the flow of life and avoid unnecessary resistance, including resistance to death.

Artistic depiction of yin and yang. Source: Adobe Stock

Christianity

In Christianity, currently practiced by about 2.4 billion people worldwide, we see reflections on death in crucifixes, tombs, funerary art, and the Psalms. Many of these serve as reminders to believers of the importance of leading meaningful and righteous lives. Christian theological teachings include the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Its liturgical readings include themes of mortality, repentance, and the need for salvation and grace.

The Christian liturgical calendar begins with Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent (a time of reflection, fasting, and repentance). During Ash Wednesday services, a minister or priest applies ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers while saying the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Christian funeral services often include readings and prayers that emphasize the brevity of life and the hope of resurrection. The cross is, of course, the central symbol of Christianity. It represents the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, and it’s a powerful reminder of the Christian belief in salvation through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

Keep death daily before your eyes.”
-St. Benedict, 6th century Italian Christian monk, writer, and theologian

Islam

For Muslims (currently about two billion worldwide), there are daily prayers, funeral prayers, sermons, and other reminders of the certainty of death. Take the five daily prayers (Salat), for example. During these prayers, people recite specific verses from the Quran, including verses emphasizing the fleeting nature of life and the Day of Judgment. The Khutbah (sermon) of Jumu’ah (Friday Prayer) often includes reminders about death, the importance of good deeds, and the Day of Judgment. Muslims are also encouraged to engage in the remembrance of death (dhikr al-mawt). The Arabic phrase, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” translates to: “Verily, we belong to Allah, and verily, to Him we shall return.”

Art

We also see memento mori depicted in art, including the “danse macabre” (“dance of death”) of the Late Middle Ages, when the plague (the “Black Death”) was ravaging Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. It features depictions of death personified as a skeletal figure, often accompanied by living individuals from various social classes and all walks of life (from kings and clergy to peasants and children), engaging in a dance or procession. Its central theme was that death is the great equalizer, because death eventually comes for everyone, regardless of their station in life.

We also see memento mori depicted in the “vanitas” still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, with skulls, hourglasses, clocks, candles, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, fraying books and scrolls, and broken musical instruments symbolically representing the transience and futility of earthly life and the impermanence of material possessions. The Latin word “vanitas” means “vanity” or “emptiness.” These artists were urging viewers to reflect on the vanity of their worldly pursuits and the excesses and distractions of earthly life—and to focus on the eternal instead.

Example of vanitas painting. Source: Adobe Stock.

Literature

We also see memento mori themes in literature and philosophy. Writers and philosophers, famously including Montaigne and Shakespeare, explored the concept’s implications for human existence and the pursuit of wisdom.

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us… let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death….
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.

-Michel de Montaigne, French Renaissance philosopher

In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the main character had a medallion attached to his watch chain with “respice finem” (“consider the end”) inscribed on it.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Memento Mori

  • “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” -Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo
  • “Plan with your whole life in mind.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river…. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here…. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “O remember how short my time is.” -Psalm 89:47
  • “Celebration is only possible through the deep realization that life and death are never completely separate. Celebration can only really come about where fear and love, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles can exist together. Celebration is the acceptance of life in a constantly increasing awareness of its preciousness. And life is precious not only because it can be seen, touched, and tasted but also because it will be gone one day.” -Henri Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality
  • “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” -E.M. Forster, English writer
  • “If you are fully alive to the prospect of dying, you really start reprioritizing your life.” -Mitch Albom, writer
  • “…the more you confront the facts of finitude… and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.” -Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “It’s easy to lose track of that mortality, to forget time, to think that you’re going to live forever. The idea that you’re gonna die and that life is short is only depressing if you’re thinking about it wrong. If you’re thinking about it right it should give you a sense of priority. It should even give you a sense of meaning; it should let you know what’s important, what you’re trying to do while you’re here on this planet.” -Ryan Holiday, writer
  • “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am. I can’t think of a more graced way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.” -Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

(1) Many years ago, I got the chance to interview Inez Russell, founder and CEO of Friends for Life in Waco, Texas. She met several elderly people in the local hospital who were alone and confused or despondent. She was touched personally and also discovered that about one in three seniors over 65 are socially isolated. So, she got busy and started an organization to improve the quality of life for seniors, particularly those who are without family to care for them. Through its programs that help with life skills, independent living, money management, guardianship, and more, Friends for Life helps the elderly and people with disabilities live independently as long as possible, protects and cares for those who are unable to do it themselves, and brings generations together to enrich lives.

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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!

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.”
-Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president

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,” TEDxAsheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDxMileHigh

 

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: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

(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!

 

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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!

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

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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!