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Don’t Know, Don’t Believe, or Just Don’t Care?

Strategies and goals

hanging onWhy do we so often have trouble following through with the way we want to be and act? Unfortunately for me, I face this question all the time. Having made a study of habits and motivation, I have an almost endless supply of tools and tricks to get myself out of a bad mood, figure out what to do next, or get on track–yet even though these tools and tricks have made a huge positive impact in my life, I still manage to be far from perfect. Sometimes I’m late despite knowing exactly how not to be late; sometimes I become disorganized despite having terrific organizational systems at my disposal; and sometimes I fall short on goals or fail to change in the way I’d like to. Why? It seems to come down to three kinds of problems: not knowing, not believing, or not caring.

Here’s an example: recently I’ve been doing some reading that brings me to believe that the advice we’ve been given for decades about how to fend off heart attacks and strokes and all of that is completely wrong (see my recent article “Wait–Eating Lots of Fat Is GOOD for Your Heart?“). Once I’ve decided that what I’ve read is compelling enough to act on, why wouldn’t I become instantly and completely compliant with all of the new guidelines I’ve learned? After all, it could be literally a matter of life and death.

Don’t know: Before I started reading up on the “fats good, sugars bad” perspective, I had lots of misinformation that was fed to me–and that continues to be fed to me–by mostly well-meaning nutritionists, government officials, and doctors. If I don’t have good information, I can’t very well act on it. It’s very hard to change a habit, for instance, without knowing how habits work (by the way, this site has a number of clear, specific, and carefully researched articles on that subject).

Don’t believe: There are different versions of the belief problem, but one example is plain old doubt. For instance, I might find Dr. Peter Attia’s posts about fat very compelling, but still be nervous to switch to a fat-driven diet because I have a hard time believing that almost all of the information I’d received on the subject in the past was wrong.

Worse, and perhaps even more common, is lack of belief in ourselves. If I don’t believe I can make a change in my life, then all of my efforts in that direction will begin to seem pointless, and it will be very hard to keep myself going.

My belief might be from old information I’m having trouble letting go of, or new and conflicting information, even if it’s from the same old sources or if I know the information I already have is better. Maybe I have friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, colleagues, or role models who don’t believe what I believe, and that’s making sticking to my guns harder.

Don’t care: Perhaps worst of all is when I know what to do and I believe it will make a difference, but I just don’t care at that point. Maybe I’ve had a rough day or a bad night’s sleep and don’t feel as though I can put the effort into one more thing. Maybe I’m concentrating on the things I don’t like about what I’m doing or on things that I can’t or shouldn’t do if I want to pursue that goal instead of on what I can be doing next or on what inspires me. Sometimes I might just not be able to get up any enthusiasm for working on a goal that might never be realized, or that would only have an effect in the distant future. Or it could be that I’m just distracted, preoccupied with other things and not able to spare the attention and interest.

Regardless of which of these problems I have, realizing that I’m faced with a problem in knowledge, belief, or caring makes an instant improvement. Asking myself what I don’t know can lead me to the information I need, and realizing I’m having trouble believing or caring can lead me back to whatever inspired me to believe or care in the first place. When these kinds of obstacles are addressed, then the problem vanishes as if by magic, and suddenly I’m back on track.

Photo by Sharon Morrow.

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If You Want to Be Happier, You Have to Care Less

States of mind

Think of the most serene, compassionate, happy-looking person in the world. What does that person look like? A movie star, someone who’s climbed to the top of the fame ladder? I’m guessing not. A powerful politician? Absolutely not. A toddler with adoring parents? Maybe, but check again in five minutes and the answer is probably no. A bride on her wedding day? Not so serene, usually. An incredibly successful entrepreneur? Smug, maybe: I’m not so sure about serene or compassionate.

How about the Dalai Lama–or virtually any other highly accomplished Buddhist monk?

Serene? Check. Compassionate? Double check. Happy looking? Those lines didn’t come from years of yelling at the cat to get off the furniture, for damn sure. Check out the images that come up if we search Google for pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: except for a couple of expressions of attentive interest, it’s a complete smilefest. (Scroll down to the bottom to see the screen shot: I didn’t want to put the picture at the top and prime you to choose the answer I’d thought of.)

Does happiness work the same way for everyone?
But then again, what does that prove? This is the Dalai Lama, for the love of Pete. It’s his job to be serene and compassionate. That guy doesn’t have to argue on the phone with his wireless provider. That guy doesn’t have a neighbor who mows the lawn every Sunday morning at 6:15. That guy has never been jilted by someone he was pity-dating (to the best of my knowledge).

Although, OK, he did have his country stolen from him, is exposed to the profound suffering of millions daily, and is never allowed to have sex at all, ever. Still, his approach to happiness probably has to be a lot different than our approach to happiness, right?

Happiness in four bullet points
I was thinking about this just a short while ago, after a conversation with my wireless provider (I bet you thought that was a hypothetical example, huh?) in which I was informed that while yes, the equipment I just purchased from them does not work, and yes, it’s their fault and yes, I’ll have to exchange it, and yes, the whole reason I had to buy it in the first place is that their coverage at my home is unusably bad, that no, they would not give me a new one before they receive the old one: in the mean time I would just have to suffer without it.

There’s the key word: “suffer.” The central lesson Buddhism has for us about happiness (even for people who, like me, don’t consider themselves Buddhists) is contained in something called “The Four Noble Truths.” The millennia-old Four Noble Truths are surprisingly in tune with psychological research from the past couple of decades, and they go a little something like this:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

For the moment, let’s not worry about the Eightfold Path: that’s a discussion for another day, although the short version of it is what my girlfriend reminds me of (patiently) time and time again: the more that the things you do are in harmony with each other and with you, the happier you’ll be.

How to suffer: a practical example
The thing I want to latch onto here is the whole suffering and attachment deal. Let’s use the example of the wireless company: Why is it frustrating and annoying to me that they aren’t helping solve my problem now, when I want it solved–frustrating enough that I literally went directly from their store to the bakery across the way with the idea of possibly having a really unhealthy lunch revolving around pastry? (Note: I did get a handle on things after a minute or two and went on to have a lunch of roasted chicken, black beans, and salad.)

The reason it was annoying is that I cared. My self-talk was subtly but inescapably guiding me toward misery by dwelling on what the wireless company–OK, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s AT&T–“should” do, what I “deserved” to have, how “unfair” it was that the device I’d pay for didn’t work, and how I “needed” an immediate solution. Note the words in quotes: they’re all indicators (in this case) of broken ideas, our primary mechanism for making ourselves miserable and the focus of a number of highly successful cognitive therapies (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

As long as I cared whether or not AT&T did what I wanted, I would be unhappy. The moment I ceased to care–became unattached from–that concern, it would no longer bother me.

How not to suffer
Again I’m not talking theoretically: I let that concern go, and I immediately felt better. Of course, the problem with bad habits–even when they’re very general habits like making ourselves unhappy when things don’t go our way–is that we’ve grown specialized neural connections to keep them going, so releasing that concern generally just means that I’ll stop worrying about it right at that moment, but that it will come back as soon as I’m reminded of the original problem at a time when I’m not concentrating on being unattached.

Fortunately, I then have the option of not caring again. It turns into a long-term battle: my habits kick in to make me act in ways that will cause me to be unhappy, then I exert conscious effort to free myself and become happy again … and round and round we go. Yet this cycle weakens the habit over time, because the more we think or act a certain way, the more robust our mental wiring for that approach becomes, while the more disruptive we are to a behavior, the more that behavior weakens. This is how habits are made and destroyed.

When next we talk about this …
There’s a lot more to talk about here, especially the idea that caring less is a good thing (which on a gut level has always given me trouble) and about when caring more is important (because there are times when caring is indispensable)–but I’ll leave those subjects for other posts, so that this one can remain a fairly readable length. I had wanted to cram more into this post, but with a little effort, I’ve stopped caring whether I do that or not.

Silo image by Timothy K Hamilton

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Why Do You Care?

Strategies and goals

Good habits make things easy. If you have a good habit, you can keep it going with minimal effort, never having to question why you floss or file all new papers before you go home for the night or make an extra effort to memorize people’s names when you meet them. That’s the whole point of a habit: it’s something you do more or less automatically. If you’re happy with how it works, you don’t really have to think about it.

Goals–which are often habits we’re trying to acquire–are a whole different ball game: we have to encourage ourselves every step of the way, use every trick and inducement we can come up with, and expend time, energy, and attention. Sooner or later (preferably sooner), careful attention to a goal should brings up an important question: Why?

Why ask why?
Is it really important to understand why we’re striving toward a particular goal? If we’re driven to accomplish something with a job, fitness, education, how the house looks, or how much sculpture we’re getting done on a weekly basis (for instance), does it really matter what’s making that feel important?

Often it does. Here are a few reasons that’s the case:

  • Getting what we want very often doesn’t make us happy. Pursuing wealth, for instance, can seem like an important and obvious goal that doesn’t need to be considered, but very often wealth doesn’t make people any happier (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“).
  • Knowing what’s motivating us makes motivation easier. See “How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower.”
  • Thinking about the reasons for our goals may in some cases bring us to realize that the goals aren’t ours–for instance, that we’re pursuing a degree that someone else wants us to have or trying to follow in the footsteps of someone who has a different path in life. There’s nothing more efficient than not having to do something in the first place, and if you can redirect your energies toward goals that are truly meaningful to you, you’ll get much better results.
  • You may want to find a new reason for what you’re doing. For instance, if you originally got in shape because you wanted to do well in the dating world but are now in a permanent relationship, you may have found your motivation to stay fit has faltered, even though rationally you know you’ll be happier and healthier if you keep with the program. Knowing that your original reasons don’t apply any more can make it possible to figure out what your new reasons might be: Having energy? Staying healthy for loved ones? Social time? Time to think?
  • Exploring our reasons for pursuing a goal can give us important insights into ourselves that may change our goals, behaviors, or choices.

So looking at your single, top goal (why just one goal? see “Choosing a Goal That Will Change Your Life“), ask yourself: “What’s in it for me? Why do I care?”

Photo by banoootah_qtr

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Fixing a Problem By Leaving

Strategies and goals

Following up on last week’s articles “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed” and “When Is It Time to Make a Change?“, today’s article takes a look at the possibilities and consequences of fixing a situation by leaving it.

When there’s no way to get away
Leaving isn’t always an option. For example, if the problem is affecting a place, person, or group of people you care about–say, your brother-in-law has a drinking problem, or your hometown has gone into a bad economic slump–then getting isn’t likely to help. Even when leaving the problem behind physically won’t help, though, it’s sometimes possible to leave emotionally, which is to say stop caring about the situation. Ceasing to care about things is often not a helpful approach, and even when it is advisable, it isn’t always easy. Yet ceasing to care can sometimes be the best choice, especially if an activity or relationship is involved that wasn’t that healthy or appropriate in the first place, as with ending a friendship with someone who’s been a destructive influence.

What’s lost, what’s gained, and what the break will cost
When leaving is an option, it can help to become clear on the three kinds of things that are affected when we leave a situation: what’s lost by leaving the situation behind, what’s gained by leaving it, and what damage (or benefits) might result from the leaving itself. For instance, leaving a job can be a way of ending an intolerable work relationship with a boss or coworker (a key cause of unhappiness at work, according to the Gallup Group’s investigations on well-being) but may cause uncertainty with your income, increase or decrease your commute, open up new opportunities, threaten rifts between you and others still working at or with the place you left, create a situation that will tend to make a spouse relieved or fearful, and so on. Not all of these costs and benefits may be apparent at the beginning, and some will not be predictable, such as unexpected opportunities and the emotional impact of the change.

Ways to think about leaving
One of the most useful things we can do when thinking about leaving a situation is to bring to light all of our fears, concerns, and hopes that may make us want to leave or stay and to try to find any broken ideas (thoughts that cause bad feelings by misleading us in subtle ways) that may be causing pain now, preventing progress, or threatening the future. Two good ways of bringing out these kinds of thoughts are writing them out on paper or on a computer or talking about the situation with a sympathetic friend who’s a good listener.

Some examples of kinds of thoughts worth looking at:

  • Fears of what will happen if you do leave
  • Fears of what will happen if you don’t leave
  • Assumptions about your current situation that may or may not be accurate
  • Concerns about how other people will judge a decision to leave
  • Hopes for opportunities that might open up
  • Overly-limiting ideas about who you are and what you’re capable of doing
  • People who would be affected by a change, including whether it’s you or someone else who would be most affected
  • What kinds of life complications would go away or be added by leaving

A “pros and cons” list can be useful, but it’s unlikely to provide an obvious answer, even if the list is much longer on one side than the other, since different items in a list can have very different levels of importance. Seeing the two sides of the issue laid out like this, though, can make it much easier to balance out the the possibilities the situation offers, provided all the key points are covered. One very useful approach is to spend days or even weeks coming back to the list and adding to it whenever new ideas occur, then considering both sides carefully and sleeping on it, letting a decision emerge naturally.

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Is Willpower Just a Matter of Caring Enough?

States of mind

Some people give the following advice about willpower:

“You have to care about what you want to achieve, a lot. If you care a lot, it’s in the bag. If you don’t, you might as well give up.”

Since I think this is lousy advice, I’m not going to mention where it came from, but I do want to say why it’s lousy advice.

Why caring alone isn’t enough
First of all, a person can care desperately about something and still not be able to make it happen. For example, Melissa might feel completely oppressed by her messy and cluttered house every day and want nothing more than to clean it up. However, she won’t be able to do that if she doesn’t believe she’s capable of making the change, if she doesn’t know how to start, if she can’t organize her efforts, if she strongly wants something else that’s in conflict with the clean-up effort, or if every time she thinks about cleaning up she gets distracted, blocked, or hung up on emotional issues.

Why not caring doesn’t necessarily prevent self-motivation
Similarly, if she has systematically forced herself to ignore her house for years and doesn’t really care very much, but she still knows on some level how good for her it would be to have a clean, happy home–for instance, if she’s in love with someone who wouldn’t be able to overlook the mess–then she can still create the self-motivation to clean up, and even to come up with organizational ideas, deflect distractions, overcome obstacles, and get past emotional issues.

Caring as a source of motivation
Of course, caring deeply about something is nonetheless a powerful source of motivation, and if there aren’t other things in your way, it can sometimes be plenty by itself. For example, one summer when I was in college, I met a French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. She was very pretty, and I immediately decided I wanted to be able to speak to her in French. I probably learned more French in those two weeks than I have in all the rest of my life put together. I knew I could do it, having already become conversant in Spanish; I didn’t feel any emotional conflicts with learning French; I knew how to go about studying the language; I had the books … in other words, caring pushed me forward, and there didn’t happen to be anything major in the way. Under these kinds of circumstances, caring makes a real difference.

How to become motivated even when you have mixed feelings
Let’s say I’m in a situation where I recognize that something is very important–starting an exercise regime, for instance, or completing some difficult repairs on my house–but I don’t really care about it on a gut level. How can I motivate myself?

First of all, it helps for me to connect to the benefits. If possible, I’ll want to visualize and spend time thinking about the results I’m seeking–the increased value of my house when I sell it and what I could do with that money or the boost in energy I would get from exercising, for instance. These kinds of exercises help me care more, which as we’ve established isn’t strictly necessary, but which will help make things easier.

Second, I have to be willing to prioritize the thing I’m trying to achieve above every other kind of self-motivation. We are really only capable of working on one major life change at a time: this is one of the reasons people so often fail at changing their habits, because they try to fix everything at once, which means changing many kinds of habits. But changing habits requires a lot of focus and attention–too much to allow attention to be divided among a lot of different goals. So while changing in more than one major way at once is possible, it’s extremely difficult and usually fails. So if Melissa wants to declutter her house, she’s better off not trying to start a weight loss regime or a novel at the same time.

Motivation creating caring
The flip side of this is that our attention, our consciousness and awareness and focus, is so useful and valuable that if we direct it energetically at any one thing, we have a very good chance of achieving that thing if it can be achieved at all. If Melissa spends a lot of time thinking about how she’ll clean up her house, and reads books on decluttering, and talks with friends about the problem, and learns some of the strategies on this site to deal with the difficult emotions that can come up in that kind of process, then even if cleaning up her house starts out as something that doesn’t really mean much to her, it becomes something that she gets better and better at and cares more and more about.

Because it’s really the other way around: caring doesn’t cause us to make changes in our lives as reliably as making changes in our lives causes us to care. The more thought and effort I put into accomplishing a goal, the more I begin to identify with that goal, most of the time. As much as what we care about makes us who we are, in fact who we are changes throughout our lives, and caring about different things, shifting our own priorities, is a lot of what makes that change happen.

Photo by Storm Crypt

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Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman

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