Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences; it helps us shift our perspective. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Featured image: Photo by Kendall Lane 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

A Phantom Menace

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.”


 — Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are composed of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of theses thoughts and beliefs are helpful to us in that they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions — they expand what is possible for us. Others limit our view, and so our experiences of life — they resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives, and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically — as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up in a kind of self-sabotage, then, for the very experience that he fears. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation — what are often called “cognitive distortions.” The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that 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 it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?'” (136). In posing this question to ourselves, we open space to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking. If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather thanagainst you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.”


 — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

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