Browsing the archives for the courage tag.
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The Power of Vulnerability

The human mind

Social work professor Brené Brown gave a startling TED talk a while back, and her basic point was this: we usually want things to go a certain way. We usually want to be able to predict what happens and for it to be something we’ve identified as good. What we don’t want is to screw up, to look bad, to open ourselves up to pain, loss, or embarrassment, or to invest ourselves in something that doesn’t pan out. Yet Brown makes a compelling case that without the willingness to be vulnerable, we shut ourselves down and make it impossible to enjoy or make the most of our lives.

To tell you the truth, I’m especially enthusiastic to share with you Dr. Brown’s following TED talk, but it’s important (and rewarding!) to see this one first. If you’re not already one of the roughly 8.5 million people (at the time of this writing) who’ve heard what she has to say, please find 20 minutes now, or as soon as it’s practical, and hear her out. I’ll follow up with a related post soon.


So This Sucks. What’s That Shiny Thing? On Schema Avoidance


I’m big on using writing as a tool for mindfulness and self-understanding: I do a lot of sitting down to write out what my thoughts and experiences have been on certain problem topics (whatever I’m working on in my life at that point in time) and using tools I’ve acquired, like idea repair and identifying mental schemas to figure out what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what I can do to improve things. Yesterday, in the middle of this process, I suddenly became distracted.

And now for something completely different …
I was writing about a situation that had been frustrating me and had gotten to the point of saying “OK, I don’t know what’s going on there, but it sure is frustrating.” Sometimes I stop at that point if I don’t have any further insights. In this case, I hadn’t really thought the thing through very well, so I didn’t know whether or not I had further insights. Before I could figure that out, I found myself thinking about some entertaining distractions on the Internet, a new little project I could start, and wanting to check my e-mail. Since I was fortunately already trying to pay attention to my thoughts, I pulled myself up short. What was going on with me? I was doing meaningful self-examination, and then suddenly I want to go see what’s on YouTube? Was I trying to distract myself from something?

Having that thought, I was immediately inclined to drop the subject. It was as though I had walked up to a door and found a sign on it saying “Go away! We don’t want any!” Since this was happening (metaphorically) in my own brain, that seemed like a red flag to me–and also, I just like being contrary. So I opened the door and looked around. When I did, I came face to face with the overcommitment problem I’d been mulling over recently and one of the hidden ways it has been affecting me.

Schema avoidance
So what had happened was that the thinking I was doing led me to make a connection between some of my behaviors and overcommitment, but as soon as I got close to that connection, I automatically started distracting myself. There’s a name for this phenomenon. In schema therapy, it’s a “schema coping style” called “schema avoidance.”

Avoidance takes any number of forms: it can be television, surfing the Web, extreme sports, reading, going out with friends, eating, drug abuse, drinking, or anything else that can keep a person’s attention well enough to block some other thought or feeling. It can even be something constructive, like doing the dishes or working out.

Unfortunately, coping styles (like avoidance) don’t tell us much about what the underlying problem is. The fact that I was avoiding something only told me that there was something wrong, not what kind of thing it was.

It’s worth thinking how much this has to do with procrastination. In our culture, we tend to think of work as being something we would naturally want to avoid, but there’s nothing inherently painful about work, and often other problems–like fear of failure, perfectionism, or negativity–cause us to want to distract ourselves from working.

Opening the door marked “do not enter”
So learning about ourselves when we notice we’re being avoidant means facing the avoidance and consciously choosing to stay on task, to keep thinking or talking or feeling or investigating whatever it was that set us off. If I go to open my mail and suddenly have the idea that it would be fun to go out ice skating or that it’s time to watch a new DVD, then there’s a good chance that there’s something about the mail that triggers one of my mental schemas. If at that point I want to grow as a person and get past my current life obstacles, then the thing for me to do is to go to the mail, open it, and be observant of and gentle with myself as I face whatever it is I don’t want to face.

Being observant is necessary if I’m going to understand myself better in order to change things. Being gentle is necessary because we’ve developed these schemas and coping styles for a reason: somewhere earlier in life, something along these lines was painful enough to force a schema to develop around it. If we want to unravel mental schemas that keep us from living a good life, we need to care for whatever part of us the schema is there to protect.

Got courage?
I understand this talk of being gentle with ourselves may be offputting to some readers, so I’d like to characterize it in another way: facing those things that disturb us even though doing so makes us uncomfortable and vulnerable requires focus, self-knowledge, and above all, courage. So if the thought of facing everything that makes you feel uncomfortable or bad in the world gives you a sudden urge to see what’s on TV, I don’t blame you–but I also wish you good luck pushing the avoidance aside and courageously moving forward.

Photo by rishibando


Tools for Taking on a Task You Dread

Handling negative emotions


Let’s say there’s something you really should do, but you dread doing it. Maybe it’s huge, difficult, inconvenient, dirty, unpleasant, draining, or even physically painful. Maybe you dread it because it’s a potential source of bad news (seeing the doctor, doing the bills, estimating revenues for the coming year). Maybe you started doing it, but you stopped, and now it’s been so long that you’re not even sure how you would begin. Or maybe it just has a bad association. Regardless, here’s something you’d really rather avoid but that you know you would be better off doing, preferably soon.

The problem is that dread is anything but motivating. If you could somehow dredge up some enthusiasm for doing the dreadful thing, that might get you somewhere, but dread tends to hold you back. Dreaded tasks often get ignored, avoided, delayed, bumped down the priority list by less important but more pleasant tasks, and so on. It’s certainly possible to take on a task while still dreading it, but transforming dread into something positive will nearly always make accomplishing the thing much more likely. So how can we do that?

Begin by Working on Motivation
The first thing to do is to separate the task of motivating yourself to do the task from the dreaded task itself. Motivating yourself is relatively easy and pleasant compared to cleaning out a filthy refrigerator or completing sixty pages of tax paperwork, and if you complete the job of motivating yourself, then actually doing the task becomes much easier.

In motivating ourselves to tackle a  dreaded task, it’s important to begin to understand what about the task we dread, which means reflecting on our feelings and answering basic questions like “What is it I think will happen when I start doing this task?” and “What about this task is the biggest obstacle for me?”

With a bit of awareness about where the dread comes from, often idea repair and surrendering ourselves to the idea of taking on the task will clear away a lot of the dread. Sometimes talking with a sympathetic friend, family member, mentor, or therapist can help, as can writing about the issue in a journal.

Creating Enthusiasm Even for the Worst Tasks
And when the task is no longer as awful as it has sounded to us in the past, because we understand our feelings about it, have addressed broken thoughts, and have committed ourselves to taking care of business, we can turn to (as weird as this may sound) … enthusiasm. Even a task that seems terrible, if it’s related to something important to us, can have its attractions. One of the most appealing things about a really daunting task can be the vision of just getting it done: if the task is something that’s been put off for a long time, it’s probably a source of annoyance or anxiety, and doing it provides relief.

Dreaded tasks can sometimes be genuinely enjoyable (for instance, a trip to do something difficult could still be a fun trip); they may bring out a sense of pride at being the kind of person who can face these kinds of problems; and they can sometimes remove uncertainty about the future. More motivating even than these can be connecting with the really basic things you’re accomplishing with the task, for instance making your surroundings more welcoming, healing a damaged relationship, or working through a major financial issue. If it’s something you don’t feel like doing, what are your reasons for doing it in the first place? They’re probably significant ones.

Things to Watch Out for
If the task is large, it doesn’t have to be done all at once: doing a few simple things to get started can take a lot of the menace out of the thing you’re trying to accomplish and begin to establish momentum. If you don’t take care of it all at once, though, consider doing it in several sessions close together, for instance once per day until it’s finished, so as to keep that momentum going.

Regardless of how you approach it, there will probably come a point where you have to dive in. Whether you do this by distracting yourself or by finding courage, be prepared to have to pass this point when you start, and probably to pass it again from time to time as you continue. And when you’re done, you can take a good look back so that you’ll remember that you were courageous enough to get it done.

Photo by hapticflapjack

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