Where Do You Want to Go?

Where Do You Want to Go?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car.  In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well.  I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly.  Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road!  One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.”  The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while!  The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin the new year, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.  We’ll formulate goals, or resolutions.  If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits.  If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home.  So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do.  We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!”  And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives?  Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives.  Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”?  What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”?  Let me clarify.  From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not.  In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon).  For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement.  I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do.  “I really need to get to the gym today!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!”  I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind.  “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!”  Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don’t finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”?  How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning?  The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative?  For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation).  Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …”  For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida.  Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”).  However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym.  “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids.  Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!”  For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism).  Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety.  While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!).  For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well.  When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go.  The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well.  These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  As we begin the new year, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals.  I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!


Updated: 01/12/2019

Featured image: Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Think the Rainbow

Think the Rainbow!

In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others in that they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors resonating with catabolic energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider describes catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four such obstacles: limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.

The Problem with Interpretations

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.


 — Diana Wynne Jones

Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction'” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit.

When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.

Challenging Interpretations

There are no facts, only interpretations.


— Friedrich Nietzsche

There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?'” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!

I have proposed before, and will again, that we give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance, when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we still decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?

Think the Rainbow!

Experience the Rainbow!


— Skittles

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You might think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you might steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You might be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches.

As you notice when you are making interpretations, consider whether or not your interpretations are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, which distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, which supports you in moving in the direction you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!”: Your interpretation is only ever one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!

Featured image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg

Updated: 03/22/2019

Limiting Beliefs

What’s Limiting You?

Our thoughts and imaginations are the only real limits to our possibilities.


— Orison Swett Marden

In my last post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I introduced the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of these thoughts and beliefs are helpful to us in that they have an anabolic, or positive, influence on our mood, energy, and actions; other thoughts and beliefs have a catabolic, or negative, influence. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies examples of what I’m describing as the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses as four kinds of “energy blocks” (129): limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In my post today, I’d like to explore the first of these blocks — limiting beliefs.

Limiting Beliefs

Schneider defines limiting beliefs as ideas that we have about our situations, surroundings, other people, or the world that restrict our sense of what is possible. Most often, we have come to accept these ideas as true because they are communicated to us as true by some source that we have invested with authority — someone we know, the media, or a book we have read, for instance. As an example of a limiting belief, Schneider references the idea that before 1954, running a mile in under four minutes was considered “impossible” for a human being, and even “dangerous” to attempt (129). On May 6, 1954, at a meet in Oxford, England, a 25-year-old junior doctor named Roger Bannister ran his way into the record and history books with a time of three minutes and 59.4 seconds. Schneider contends that such an achievement required Bannister’s rejection of a prevailing and limiting belief of his era, and the creation of a new belief for himself — that running a mile in under four minutes was possible. While I do not know enough to claim that a sub-four-minute mile was considered impossible and dangerous at the time, it does seem to me that Bannister would have had to believe that breaking the four-minute mile was possible for him (no limiting belief there!); otherwise, would he have even tried?

From my own perspective, another example of a limiting belief that may resonate with many of us who identify ourselves as anxious is the view of our anxiety as a curse or a wound, something “bad,” a way in which we’re broken (and so “bad” ourselves, perhaps). In terms of a limiting belief, this view of anxiety is complicated because it is often not simply based on something that we have been told, but on our own unpleasant personal experiences of the emotional and physical pain of anxiety; moreover, our gremlin or inner critic frequently gets involved. As absolutely valid as this take on anxiety as a curse or wound may be, given what those of us who experience anxiety can go through, it is not helpful to us. This particular way of seeing sets up a relationship between us and our anxiety that is dominated by feelings of antipathy, resentment, and fear. In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as an enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we generate an even greater amount of tension (catabolic energy) for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm, courage, and confidence that we desire. Personally, I wonder how our experiences of anxiety might be different if we were able to see anxiety not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing, a source of healing — a gift, even. While I acknowledge that this idea may strike some as sounding ridiculous, at least initially, I get very excited thinking about what a different kind of relationship between us and anxiety this energetically anabolic perspective makes possible, and with this different relationship, what becomes possible for us. You can read more about this idea of mine in my post, “The Gift of Anxiety.”

Challenging our Limiting Beliefs

There are several ways for us to challenge our limiting beliefs, whether the beliefs involve how we think about anxiety or anything else in our lives. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with various cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking.

  • First of all, we recognize that we do not have to believe everything we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how things are!”).
  • If we inventory and evaluate the influence that a particular belief has had on our life (look at the cost, and ask ourselves, “Is that all right with me?”), and decide that we want to change what we have been experiencing, we can begin by choosing an alternate belief for ourselves, a way of seeing that helps us rather than hurts us.
  • We can then examine the evidence for the limiting belief (question the proof of its “truth,” in other words), and ask ourselves questions like, “How true do I believe this idea is … really?” and “Where did this limiting belief come from for me?” (Schneider, 134). In answering the first question, we may realize that our buy-in to the belief is not as complete as it had seemed; in answering the second, we allow ourselves the opportunity to create a context for the belief, which may help us conceive that we need not see it as fact, but simply as something that we have come to accept as true (and so, as something that we can decide to reject). We can also explore supporting evidence for the alternate idea that we have developed.

In the midst of all of these responses, it may be helpful for us to keep in mind that we have been seeing through this particular set of lenses for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Change takes time. Or is that just another limiting belief … if it’s not helping us?

What’s Limiting You?

Over the next few weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for limiting beliefs. Look for thoughts and ideas that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible, that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic energy, which builds you up. There are times that all of us could use an extra “someone in our corner” who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction that we want to go. I would like, in some small measure, to help you in this way; perhaps, one day, you will pass the help along to someone else!

How is the way that you are seeing things influencing what is possible for you? What are alternate thoughts and beliefs that would be more helpful than some of the ones that you are currently using? How can you “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you?

Here’s to your increased calm, courage, and confidence!


Updated: 03/13/2019

Featured image credit: arcady31 / 123RF Stock Photo

Through A Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.


— P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!  When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had anything to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then, through lenses that were covered with smudges.

We See the World through Lenses

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses — glasses of perception — all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses that I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives. Other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision.  These latter lenses help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.

Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Our Lenses Make a Difference

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or perhaps regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!'”

Now, most of us, I would imagine, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses.  We can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up.”  We may be so used to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, however, that we do not even realize how much these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world in general — dim our view, and so our experience of life, with the effects of a very different energy.  We can call this latter energy catabolic” since it is often constrains us, drains us, and “breaks us down.”  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories of “energy blocks”: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Are Your Lenses Helping or Hurting You?

Sometimes, as happens in the story in Schneider’s book, we may find it helpful to examine our lenses with the support of another person who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction we want to go.  With this idea as inspiration, I will be addressing in the weeks that follow each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy as topics for this blog.  I will offer further definitions and examples, explain how I see these obstacles relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (as another way of thinking and talking about them), and explore ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus or have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perception.  I hope that you will feel free to join me by reading along, and by offering your own thoughts as comments on the blog posts, if you are so inclined.


Updated: 03/02/2019

Featured image credit: anaken2012 / 123RF Stock Photo