Raise your hand if you ever tolerated someone’s unacceptable behaviour and made excuses for them because you didn’t know how to react, or you were afraid that, by saying something, you would be seen as rude or selfish.
Raise another hand if you repeatedly did something for someone out of obligation, and then resentment toward them grew because you felt taken advantage of.
🙌 🙌 🙌
It’s okay, many of us experienced such situations at some point. But if it keeps happening over and over again, if you feel resentful and taken for granted in relationships, if you repeatedly feel like others don’t hear or respect your wishes or needs, maybe it’s time to learn to set some boundaries.
In therapy and coaching, but also in general, we can often hear people say that they would like to learn to set boundaries but have difficulties with it. One part of the reason why they are struggling is that setting boundaries is, simply, uncomfortable. It often triggers feelings of guilt and shame, and it can be especially hard for people who identify themselves as people-pleasers.
Related to this, sometimes, they don’t know how boundaries are supposed to feel like. What is my responsibility and what is not? Is it inappropriate if I tell the other person he or she crossed my boundary in this situation? Do I have the right to set boundaries for this thing?
The third reason is that they don’t know how to set boundaries – practically. What to say to set a boundary? How to maintain it?
Let’s deep dive into all three and learn how to set healthy boundaries, so we can show up for ourselves and for others more genuinely and authentically.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are physical and emotional limits you create to define what are reasonable, acceptable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward you. Healthy boundaries help you define where you end and the other person begins, what you will and will not hold yourself responsible for, and teach others what is and is not an acceptable way to treat you.
Boundaries can be about various things, for example: what are appropriate times for others to call or text you, can they come to your house unannounced, how much time or money you give, how others speak to you, how physically close you are comfortable to be with someone, discussing different topics like sex, politics, religion, personal experiences, etc.
In a way, boundaries are like rules. We all know that there are different rules in life, like having to stop at a STOP sign or waiting in line at the store, etc. Those rules are easy to follow – usually, there are big signs communicating the rule, like a bright red STOP or “Wait in line” sign at a cash register. Rules are clear. Not following them results in some sort of penalty, like a fine or social disapproval. These rules are in place to prevent chaos. Our boundaries have the same purpose – to prevent overwhelm and chaos in our relationships and protect our well-being. However, they are not so clear. We don’t have signs taped over our foreheads listing what we consider to be appropriate and inappropriate. We need to communicate this. And when someone violates these boundaries, we can set consequences.
Lack of boundaries:
- Feeling like you’re not appreciated
- Resentment in your relationships
- Lack of awareness of your needs, which leads to burnout
- Always saying yes to avoid disappointing others or feeling guilty
- Feeling obligated to immediately respond to others and meet their needs
- Feeling like you’re being taken advantage of
- Being aware of your needs and communicating them clearly
- Saying no to things that you don’t feel comfortable doing
- Connecting with others when you feel emotionally open to connect, not when others expect it
- Having the confidence to speak up about how you want to be treated and placing consequences if that is not respected
- Believing you have the right to preserve your well-being
Why Are Boundaries So Important?
Boundaries are necessary for the health and quality of our relationships. Without them, our relationships cannot thrive. Poor boundaries lead to resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, disappointment, and burnout. They indicate that we are not honest in our relationship because we are not free to communicate how we feel or what we need but, instead, act from the fear of disappointing others. So, boundaries are kind. They allow other people to understand how to best engage with us, and that is nourishing for our relationships.
Even more importantly, boundaries are crucial for our physical and mental health. They keep us safe and help us fulfill our needs. They give us a sense of agency over our physical space, our time, and emotional resources. Without them, our energy quickly gets depleted, leaving us exhausted, stressed, and hopeless. Poor boundaries can lead to other problems as well, such as having difficulties with decision-making or confusing our own wants and needs with others’ wants and needs. We may end up spending so much of our life doing what others want that we lose a sense of self, finding it difficult to identify what it is that we authentically want or don’t want.
Boundaries are an expression of self-care. Self-care is not just about how you eat, how much you exercise, or how much you rest. It is a much broader concept, referring to how you treat yourself, how you find balance, joy, play, and kindness toward yourself. It’s how you take care of your physical and mental health; setting and maintaining boundaries is an essential part of it.
How to Set Boundaries Effectively
Even though personal boundaries can be challenging to navigate, recognizing our limits and communicating them well is essential for our own well-being and for building healthy relationships with others. Here are 5 steps that can help you set healthy boundaries.
1. Understand that you have the right to set boundaries
Not only it is your right to create boundaries, but it is also your responsibility. You can’t control other people’s behaviour, you can only control your own. Hence, what you feel and need and how you want to be treated is not up to the other person to figure out, but up to you to communicate. Personal boundaries allow you to take ownership of your own life and shape your relationships.
Knowing your basic rights and also what is your responsibility and what is not can help you feel a little less awkward for setting personal boundaries. When you choose to fully accept and believe in these rights and responsibilities, it becomes much easier to set boundaries and let go of the guilt surrounding them.
- It’s not your responsibility to make other people happy all the time
- You are not responsible for others’ poor decisions nor is anyone responsible for your decisions
- It’s not your job to rescue people from their big uncomfortable feelings
- You don’t need permission to be who you are, think what you think, or care about your needs
- You have the right to feel your feelings, whatever those are. Behaviours and feelings are not the same things
- It’s okay for others to get angry or feel uncomfortable
- You have the right to say NO
- It’s okay to spend time alone without explaining yourself
- Other people have every right to disagree with you or don’t like your decision
2. Identify what you need
In order to create boundaries, it is important to clearly define what you want and why. To set good boundaries, it’s often necessary to get in touch with your needs and personal core values. Sometimes, especially if you ignored them most of the time to cater to others’ expectations and demands, this can be challenging. Still, don’t give up. Small steps lead to big results. Here are some questions you can ask yourself that may help:
What is important to me?
How do I want my relationships to look like?
What are my goals?
So, it’s important to be clear about what exactly you want to change, why, and how. This will help you communicate your boundary clearly and stay the course when it gets through. Writing this down can also be helpful.
3. Communicate your boundary
Now comes the hard part – you need to communicate the new boundary you want to set. You don’t need to apologize for your boundaries – there is nothing wrong with saying no or asking for what you need. Many people worry that communicating their boundaries clearly and not apologizing for them will seem rude, selfish, or inconsiderate. However, you can communicate your boundaries with a sense of softness, compassion, and kindness, and still stand your ground. The key is to communicate your boundaries without criticism or contempt. Take ownership of your boundaries, without blaming the other person. Use “I statements” – keep the focus on your needs.
For example, instead of saying:
“You keep calling me at inappropriate times when I’m at work. Stop bothering me during business hours.”
you can say:
“I am really busy during the business hours and answering calls at those times distracts me. If there is nothing super important, please don’t call before 5 pm, or I won’t be able to answer.”
One trick that can make kindly communicating boundaries easier is to replace “but” with “and”. This small language change implies that both things that you are communicating can exist at the same time. For example: “I love spending time with you AND also I need some space for myself” sounds different from: “I love spending time with you BUT I need some space for myself”, doesn’t it?
If needed, you can explain why you find it important to set this boundary, and frame it as a positive step for the relationships and/or for your well-being. However, avoid overexplaining, because 1. it may sound confusing, and 2. it may start looking like apologizing and imply that you don’t have the right to determine what you want and don’t want to do. But you do have that right, and you can own and honour it.
So, in short, how to communicate your boundaries:
- Be direct and clear. Say exactly what you need and what you want to change.
- Be warm in your communication. Replace “but” with “and”
- Don’t criticize or blame. Instead, focus on your needs and use “I statements”
- Explain why this is important to you. Don’t overexplain or apologize for it
These are some general rules about how to communicate your boundaries, but they will vary depending on the person you are communicating with and the nature of your relationship. Whatever approach you choose to use – gentle, firm, compassionate, short – knowing what you want as a result of setting the boundary is the most important thing.
4. Be prepared for resistance
Sometimes, people will acknowledge your newly set boundary and respect it. Other times, unfortunately, things won’t go so easy. They may try to argue, oppose, guilt-trip you into withdrawing your newly set boundary, get angry, or ask questions. In a way, it’s expected – they are used to one kind of interaction with you and now they are facing change. This kind of reaction is especially common with people who benefited from your lack of boundaries – you are now revoking that privilege, so it’s expected that they get upset. But if they had this privilege at the expense of your needs or well-being, they were never meant to have it in the first place.
Others reacting poorly to you setting boundaries is not proof that you shouldn’t have set them. Setting boundaries can be an uncomfortable process (for both sides), so be prepared for it. We’ll talk about this a little bit more in the last section of this post. What’s important to remember is that setting boundaries, however uncomfortable, is a valuable skill that you build over time and is absolutely worth the effort.
5. Execute your new boundary
Boundaries include an action. Stating boundaries is a big step; however, it’s the follow-through that makes them effective. If you have set a boundary – asked the other person to change their behaviour, and communicated how you’re going to behave – make sure to stick to it. This way, you are showing consistency – to the other person and to yourself.
Of course, we all want others to respect our boundaries. However, we have to accept that, sometimes, it won’t be the case and we can’t make anyone behave the way we want. Boundaries are there to communicate and protect your needs, not to control someone else’s behaviour. This is why you need to set consequences for violating your boundaries, and give yourself permission to execute them. If someone is repeatedly crossing your boundaries despite multiple warnings and clear communication from your end, you have a range of options. Ask yourself: “If things stay exactly as they are right now and never change (and it seems like they won’t), what can I do to protect my well-being?” Maybe to distance yourself physically, work on emotionally detaching yourself, end the relationship…? Weight the benefits and risks and choose the next steps, just make sure that your mental health is your top priority.
Of course, your boundaries don’t have to be set in stone – you can change them or make an exception, it is your choice. However, if you bend your boundaries for some reason, make sure it’s serving your well-being. And no, “I feel bad pointing out someone’s unacceptable behaviour toward me again, so I’ll just adapt and put up with it somehow” is not a good enough reason.
Why Do I Feel Bad For Setting Boundaries? Help!
Setting boundaries comes with tremendous benefits, both for you and the people around you. But the reality is – it requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings.
Most of us really want other people to like us and don’t want to disappoint anyone. Boundary setting can be especially challenging for people who try hard to please others, or who come from families where boundaries were not encouraged nor respected.
In some families, boundaries = disconnection, disrespect, or lack of love. This becomes a model an individual carries into adulthood.
If you grew up in an environment where there were frequent breaches of privacy, if you were punished for speaking up or saying no, if sacrificing your own needs and pleasing others meant being a good kid, you may be having troubles with setting boundaries as an adult. If you learned that taking care of your needs is selfish and always putting others first is selfless and compassionate, it’s natural that, when you stand up for yourself and set boundaries, however healthy they may be, guilt arises. Guilt doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong; it often means that you are conditioned to feel it in certain situations. Such as, for example, when you take time for yourself or prioritize your needs, or when people have uncomfortable emotions about your boundaries.
Let’s be real – sometimes, people won’t like your newly set boundaries and may have big feelings around them. What is crucial to understand here is what is your responsibility and what is not.
Setting and keeping your boundaries are your responsibilities. You are responsible for the way you do it – what you say and how you say it. You are not responsible for other people’s actions.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s never pleasant to witness someone having uncomfortable emotions, especially toward something you’ve said or done. But their reaction is their responsibility, not yours. Let them have their emotions, they have the right to it. You can be attuned to others’ needs and care about their feelings without moving your boundaries. Feeling responsible for other people’s emotions doesn’t necessarily make you kind and compassionate. Instead, it can lead to rescuing behaviours, resentment, and unhealthy, enmeshed relationship dynamics.
So, if the question is how to set boundaries without anyone feeling bad, the answer is – sometimes, it’s impossible, simply because we can’t control other people’s emotions, however gentle and compassionate we are in our communication.
Just remember, others are allowed to feel uncomfortable. They can handle it, and so can you.
Setting boundaries is something that takes courage, practice, and consistency. How they look like and how they take place is different for everyone. It may take some time to figure out what kinds of boundaries you need, allow yourself to set them, and experiment with the most appropriate ways to implement them in your life, but your mental health and your relationships will appreciate the effort in the long run.
Where in your life do you need firmer boundaries? What do you find challenging when it comes to setting them? Let us know in the comment section down below.
Also, if you know someone who would find this article useful, please be free to share it with them, or share it on your social media.
Barth, F. (2012). Boundaries and connections (pp. 25-44). Routledge.
Glover, N. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. TarcherPerigee.
Katherine, A. (2012). Where to draw the line: How to set healthy boundaries every day. Simon and Schuster.
Martin, S. (2019). 5 Tips For Setting Boundaries (Without Feeling Guilty). PsychCentral. Online resource HERE
Oh, that nagging feeling that you are not good enough, that you didn’t deserve praise, that you just got lucky, that you don’t fit in…
Does this line of thought sound somewhat familiar?
„I feel like a fraud. What gives me the right to be in the position I am in now? I don’t have the abilities needed, I’m not competent enough, someone would be way better at this. It’s just a matter of time when everybody realizes this. And all the accomplishments I’ve made? Honestly, I was lucky. Besides, everybody could do it.“
Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges. It’s completely normal, especially when we work on something new. However, when self-doubt is there almost constantly, no matter how much you have accomplished, it’s possible that you are experiencing something called the imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome is a feeling of chronic insecurity and doubt about your abilities, despite plenty of contrary evidence. It’s often accompanied by fear that you will be exposed as a fraud, or that your accomplishments are just a matter of luck, not your talent or abilities.
The imposter syndrome is very common among high achievers, who often have massive expectations from themselves and lean toward perfectionism. Research shows that around 20% of highly successful people experience this state very often, while 70% of people experience it at least once in their lifetime.
People who experience the imposter syndrome tend to:
- attribute their accomplishments to luck or some external reasons, rather than their ability
- believe that every task they take has to be done perfectly and rarely ask for help
- be convinced that people are overestimating their abilities
- feel like they don’t deserve success or praise for their achievements, and believe that other people are somehow deceived into thinking otherwise
- fear to be ’discovered as a fraud’, that everybody will find out how incompetent they are
It’s not surprising, then, that the imposter syndrome is often accompanied by anxiety, perfectionism, and sometimes depression.
Where Does the Imposter Syndrome Come From? What Causes It?
More and more people are experiencing imposter syndrome, and it comes as no surprise. Our society puts a huge emphasis on achievement. In our culture, there is often a pressure to “be the best version of yourself”, to accomplish, work hard, be competent and confident, etc. This can trigger self-doubt, especially when the majority is participating in this game. You see people around you and on social media who are always busy, accomplishing something, moving ahead, people who seem to know what they’re doing with their lives. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. What is easy to forget is that people tend to try to present themselves in the best light possible, even if that is not an accurate picture. When we overlook this, when we compare our whole story, our ups and downs, with someone’s highlights only, it’s easy to doubt ourselves, wondering if our abilities are enough.
Certain environmental factors can contribute to the imposter syndrome. A sense of belonging fosters confidence; genuine support can do wonders for our trust in ourselves. If you are part of a group where there are certain stereotypes about competence, where there is less support and positive reinforcement, or you feel like you don’t belong, there is a higher chance of developing signs of the imposter syndrome. Studies show that imposter syndrome is more common among racial and ethnic minorities.
People who struggle with imposter syndrome can come from different family dynamics. They are often children of parents who valued and praised achievement above everything else, and who believed that criticism is the best motivation. The imposter syndrome often has its roots in families where there is a lack of support, where the child gets harshly criticized for failure, but receives little to no praise for success because the parent believes that success is something that should be a norm, not something the child should be applauded for. Additionally, it is common for people who come from families where they always had to do what was expected from them, and they worked especially hard to please others.
In such circumstances, the message the child receives is something along the lines of: “I should always achieve, excel, be competent. It’s somehow never enough, but I have to keep trying. I am not enough the way I am, so I must work hard to compensate”. This becomes a perpetuating cycle in adulthood.
If this sounds like you, it is possible that, since you “learned” very early on that mistakes will be met with criticism, followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness, you try to avoid such feelings by mechanisms that helped you in the past, such as working hard, perfectionism, trying to convince others that you’re a smart, competent person, etc. However, since you’ve rarely been praised for your abilities, it’s difficult for you to internalize success and genuinely believe that you are capable. Generally, the imposter syndrome is commonly a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image, to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
Beliefs about intelligence and success
Imposter syndrome sometimes occurs even without the above-mentioned family dynamic. For example, research shows that academic success in childhood in combination with parents and teachers who emphasized your natural intelligence, as well as a biologically higher susceptibility to anxiety, can contribute to developing the imposter syndrome later in life.
A common scenario is this: things went smoothly for you in elementary and high-school, you didn’t have to work hard and people around you adored your intelligence. But in college, or on a new job, where there are higher demands, you start struggling. Now that challenges are bigger and you need to put in much more work, you may start doubting your natural intelligence and your abilities, feeling like you don’t have what it takes to be successful after all. Because you learned that “how intelligent you are” = “how little you struggle with challenges”, when things are not so easy and you need to put in extra effort, you may start thinking of it as evidence that you may not be as smart and capable as you and/or others thought you were.
Indeed, studies explain this phenomenon. For example, research showed that people who think of intelligence as a fixed trait tend to follow “performance goals”, which means that they are primarily motivated by the wish to prove their intelligence and capability. This kind of thinking is often followed by shame, anxiety, and fear that others would see them as incompetent. On the other hand, people who see intelligence as a malleable quality are motivated by “learning goals” – their primary aim is to increase their knowledge and skills. These individuals react to failure in a more resilient way and rarely feel inadequate.
How to Deal With the Imposter Syndrome
Fortunately, there are ways to beat this uncomfortable state. If the imposter syndrome is negatively impacting your health and your ability to properly function, it is important to seek professional help. Additionally, here are a few tips to possibly help you get out of your own way, decrease anxiety surrounding (dis)trust in your own abilities, and take ownership of your success.
1. Know that it’s not just you.
You may be feeling like everyone except you knows exactly what they’re doing, but that is not true. This feeling is common in the general population, but especially among high achievers.
2. Separate thoughts and feelings from facts
Your feelings are always valid. There is no “You shouldn’t feel like this” or “It’s ridiculous to feel this way”. You feel what you feel, and all feelings are okay. Emotions carry important information, they are there for a reason. However, that reason is not always something in your environment. Thoughts and feelings are internal events that don’t have to be (and often are not) 100% based in reality. Many times, our feelings come as a result of interpretations that are influenced by our past experiences, assumptions and expectations, fears and insecurities.
So, you feeling incompetent is not proof of your incompetence. You’re having a thought about being incompetent, which can come from a place of insecurity, fear, anxiety, butit is not a reflection of your objective abilities.
3. Refrain from Comparison
Comparing yourself to others is a shortcut to feeling frustrated, insecure, and anxious. And not only does it usually leave us feeling awful, but it’s also pointless. How does comparing someone’s “spotlights” with your “behind the scenes”, which is how we usually compare, make sense? We are all different people with different “starting points”, different backgrounds, preferences, abilities, traits, entirely different lives. Perhaps a better choice is to, instead, invest that energy into learning and growing, in your own way.
4. Change the spotlight of your attention and reframe how you look at the situation
Someone once wisely said that the difference between misery and happiness depends on what you do with your attention.
Instead of putting an emphasis on all the mistakes you’ve made or on the fear of being exposed, you can do many other, more productive things with your attention. For example, you can make an effort to re-focus from trying to appear confident and competent and that way possibly prevent others from “finding out” what a fraud you are, to learning from others and from your mistakes, building your skills, and doing the best you can (whatever that “best” is for you – don’t set unrealistically high expectations!). Or, you can turn your attention to gratitude, all the great things, people, and experiences you have in your life. Or you can focus on catching yourself when you’re being overly critical toward yourself and challenge this kind of self-talk.
Shifting your attention like this is not easy, but it’s essential. Insight itself is important but doesn’t do much without applied, real-life work on changing the existing patterns.
Another interesting thing you can do with your attention is test your confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to find evidence that supports beliefs you already have, overlooking or discounting the evidence that is contrary to this belief. Your imposter syndrome uses confirmation bias to convince you that you are not capable and competent, making you see your mistakes and shortcomings, and overlooking or downplaying contrary evidence – your achievements.
How about you trick your imposter syndrome by playing the same game by testing its own weapon, but in the opposite direction? Actively work on finding the evidence that you are, in fact, intelligent, talented, successful, and good at what you do. Notice and write down big and small wins, remember and accept compliments and recognitions, be thorough at finding the evidence in favor of your abilities. With consistency, you may get surprised at how much your perception can shift.
5. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect.
Yes, you may believe that you have to be. But objectively, nobody is, and that is perfectly okay. You are a unique human. Imperfect and enough.
Dealing with the imposter syndrome has nothing to do with minimizing mistakes and maximizing achievement, and everything to do with how you relate to yourself. So, it’s a process, it takes work, but it pays off.
In the end, here is just a gentle reminder. None of us:
- have it all together
- is 100% confident all of the time
- have never made a mistake
- is perfect
It’s called being human. It’s relatable. And it’s beautiful.
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174434/
Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: theory, research, practice, training, 30(3), 495.
Sherman, R. O. (2013). Imposter syndrome: When you feel like you’re faking it. American Nurse Today, 8(5), 57-58.
Palmer, C. (2021, June). How to overcome impostor phenomenon. Monitor on Psychology, 52(4). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon. Online: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon
Have you ever experienced contrasting emotions or ‘mixed feelings’ toward something or someone? Have you ever had a hard time making a decision because you had felt both positive and negative emotions toward the decision? Maybe you felt trapped, stuck, torn by two opposing forces?
If your answer is yes, what you have experienced is called ambivalence. It surely isn’t pleasant, but it’s an inevitable part of the human experience. It’s not uncommon for people to think things like:
“I have a great job opportunity, but I love my current job. It feels like, whatever I decide – to stay at my current job or to accept this new one – I’d regret it”.
“I love my husband, but I get attracted to other people. What is happening? Do I really love him?”
“My children bring me so much joy, but they often make me crazy. I want to spend time with them, but I also want them to leave me alone.”
There is nothing weird about these kinds of thoughts. People are complex beings, and with that comes the complexity of their thinking and emotions. Although we would like to have a perfectly clear picture of what we want and how we feel at all times, because of this complexity, it is not always possible.
Ambivalence is a state of internal conflict, experiencing both positive and negative thoughts and feelings about the same person or issue at the same time.
We all experience mixed feelings from time to time; it’s an inseparable part of human life. But it’s also an uncomfortable state, the one we often don’t know what to do with. Our minds like to be certain – that’s what helps us feel safe – and ambivalence brings just the opposite of that. Having seemingly contradicting feelings toward something can make us anxious and torn between options.
So, how do you get rid of ambivalence quickly and effectively?
A short answer is: you don’t and you shouldn’t. Instead, you learn to deal with it.
Ambivalence Is Not a Problem – Intolerance for Ambivalence Is
We, humans, are complex beings who walk around trying to put each other into neat little boxes – good/bad, right/wrong, mean/kind, etc. We are prone to black and white kind of thinking, trying to categorize people and experiences. This is normal to a certain extent – we are trying to quickly make sense of what is happening around us and predict what to expect. Simplifying life like this can be useful – in today’s fast-paced, over-stimulating world, our ability to filter, reduce, and simplify can help us properly function. However, if we are not careful or aware of this kind of thinking, it can carry an emotional cost.
The problem arises when we don’t know how to deal with mixed feelings. We say to ourselves: “These two things can’t go together, so which one will I choose? Which of these realities is “truer”? Which one wins, and which one will I deny and minimize?”
Extreme intolerance for ambivalence is called “splitting”. It refers to an inability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, and views of other people and oneself. People who use “splitting” see the world in absolute terms, without any room for shades of gray. For them, depending on the situation, people are seen as “perfect” or “total failures”, something “always” or “never” goes right, etc. They seem to not be able to integrate the idea that, what we often consider as “good” or “bad” traits, can exist in the same object. This, as you can imagine, can cause problems in relationships. It makes keeping long-term, stable, healthy relationships almost impossible, and the ability to optimally regulate own emotions and moods incredibly difficult.
The problem, then, is not ambivalence itself, but our intolerance for ambivalence.
Having Mixed Feelings Is Completely Natural
What’s true is that we can hold multiple emotions and opinions at once, even the ones that look contradictory on the surface. They can exist together without canceling each other out. Emotions are states that come and go; they are not permanent. Having both positive and negative feelings towards a person and/or a situation is completely natural.
- love your children dearly AND still feel overwhelmed or angry with them.
- feel like you want to spend more time with your partner AND need some time alone.
- love someone AND know it’s not healthy to keep them in your life.
- compassionately understand what led someone to do the things they did AND still hold them accountable for their behaviour.
- believe in yourself AND still be afraid of failure.
- grieve AND still hold space for joy.
Being able to see and accept that people, circumstances, and situations, as a whole, contain both “good” and “bad”, is one of the defining features of mental health.
Having tolerance for our mixed emotions is beneficial for several reasons.
First, when we accept that we can have multiple, seemingly opposite emotions at the same time, we don’t invest so much energy in suppressing some emotions or trying to explain which of these are true and which are not. Instead, we can re-focus this energy toward accepting our experience, understanding ourselves, and making better decisions about complex life issues.
Second, when we accept our experience instead of trying to repress or run away from it, we can have a deeper understanding of ourselves and make better decisions about complex life issues. A straightforwardly positive or negative attitude toward something has a clear message: approach or avoid. With mixed feelings, we have the opportunity to review our goals and values and reflect on our beliefs. One study showed that mixed emotions are a sign of emotional depth, not indecision. It shows the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, which is often a reflection of emotional intelligence.
Third, intolerance to ambivalence is a relationship killer. One of the key elements of mature, healthy relationships is accepting the other person as a whole. We don’t have to like all aspects of someone’s personality to love them; in fact, it’s quite impossible. Mature love means being able to see different traits of another, to acknowledge that we feel positive and negative emotions toward these traits, and still love, appreciate, and choose this person. If we are not able to integrate both “good” and “bad” traits of another person into a whole, we may have an idealistic picture of what relationships should look like. This can create unrealistically high expectations, lead to “on” and “off” relationship dynamics, and put both individuals through emotional and behavioural roller coasters.
One Simple Tip For Dealing With Mixed Feelings
One way to do start building tolerance for ambivalence is to acknowledge that two seemingly opposing thoughts or emotions can exist in our mind at the same time. They don’t have to cancel each other out – make some room for both of them and, like a curious scientist, try to observe them without judgment.
What you can also do, then, is make a simple shift in language – replace BUT with AND. When we use BUT, we are implying that the two things between which the word BUT stands cancel each other out. However, when we use AND, we make room for all emotions.
For example, consider the difference between these two sentences:
“I love my husband but he makes me so angry sometimes”
“I love my husband and he makes me so angry sometimes”
Notice how the first has a worried, unresolved connotation. The air around the second one is, on the other hand, altogether different. One doesn’t negate the other; you get angry at your partner sometimes which doesn’t mean you don’t love him dearly. With “and” language, the tension stemming from the “but” language starts to dissipate. There are no angsty questions lurking, there are no dilemmas to resolve or apologies or justifications to be made.
Additionally, being clear with yourself about your values, about who you are, what you find important, and what you want to cherish in life can also help you resolve the state of ambivalence, or at least guide your decisions when mixed feelings are present.
Embracing ambivalence can open a whole new spectrum in your interactions with others and in understanding and accepting your own experience. Fulfillment and disappointment, love and anger, pain and pleasure, there is room for all of them. Instead of instantly labeling, we can get curious instead – about ourselves and others. With this idea in mind, with openness for all emotions, we can explore and better understand what is happening, inside and outside of us.
The world is not an either/or place; our lives are full of shades of gray.
Burton, N. (2012). Self-Deception II: Splitting. Psychology Today.
Schimmack, U. (2001). Pleasure, displeasure, and mixed feelings: Are semantic opposites mutually exclusive?. Cognition & Emotion, 15(1), 81-97.
Schneider, I. K., Novin, S., van Harreveld, F., & Genschow, O. (2021). Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(2), 570-586.
Zimmerman, E. (2016). Is Ambivalence Healthy? Researchers Have Mixed Feelings. Stanford Business.
So, you and your partner just had a fight. Maybe it was around a small issue, maybe it was over something big, and maybe it was a perpetuating argument that has been repeating for months or years now. It blew up and a mixture of relationship poisons like harsh words, broken trust, shouting, contempt, criticism, silent treatment, resentment, hurt feelings, etc. left a bitter taste. But you want this partnership to continue. You want to repair your relationship, to restore connection between you and your partner, to get things back where they were or, more possibly, make them better. But at the same time, you don’t want to be hurt (again).
So, what do you do? How to heal a relationship after an argument?
According to Dr. John Gottman, most, if not all, couples argue, which is not a problem in itself. What determines the course of a relationship is how romantic partners see and handle those conflicts, how they relate to each other, and what they do after a fight to soothe and repair their relationship.
In other words, all relationships go through cycles of rupture and repair.
Ruptures in a relationship are inevitable…
When things are going well in a relationship, we feel respected, connected, and emotionally safe. We feel liked and appreciated, we are responsive to our partner’s emotions and needs, and feel like it is reciprocated. In short, we feel in tune with one another. Over time, this sense of mutual attunement contributes to building strong bonds and intimacy between people.
However, this harmonious state can be thrown off balance from time to time due to different factors, such as stress, insecurities, wrong assumptions, miscommunication, etc. We are not mind readers, no matter how finely tuned we are to each other’s moods and sensitivities. Mistakes and “misattunements” happen, and they can lead to ruptures in a relationship.
A rupture is a disruption to the emotional connection we have with a loved one. It can be small, like saying something insensitive unintentionally, or big and potentially non-negotiable, like a breach of trust, or potentially being a Jealous Partner could possibly all be triggers for an argument. Typically, ruptures are colored with unpleasant feelings like hurt, anger, loneliness, sadness, disappointment, etc. No matter how much effort we put into a relationship, some ruptures will occur. What happens after the rupture is important. If left unaddressed and untreated, resentment can build and emotional intimacy weaken. However, if both partners engage in repairing, their relationship can not only heal but grow and thrive.
…Repairs are what matters
Repair attempts are any actions or statements that are aiming to prevent a conflict escalating out of control, or, in some way, aiming to extend the olive branch after an argument. According to Dr. Gottman, repair attempts are a “secret weapon” of happy couples, whether they are aware they are using them or not. They are an act of loving behaviour not only toward your partner but to the relationship itself. They communicate: “I care about you and about this relationship, so I am willing to be vulnerable and try to connect with you. I am not trying to win this fight, I am not against you. Instead, I want our relationship to win this fight. Please join me”.
All relationships are different, so repair attempts will vary from couple to couple. Some examples:
- Offering an apology (“I am sorry about what I said earlier, I didn’t mean it”)
- Statements that communicate you are still a team (“I love you”, “I know it’s not your fault”)
- Sharing appreciation (“Thank you for sharing that with me”, “I admire that you…”)
- Empathizing (“I understand”, “If I was in your shoes, I can imagine seeing things the same way”)
- Cracking an inside joke
- A small invitation to talk, like softly tapping a spot beside you, or offering them a drink or a snack
- A gentle physical touch, like holding their hand or offering a hug
It takes two to tango, and two to repair a relationship
Repair attempts take courage and insight, and need both partners in order to work. That’s right, both partners need to engage in repair for it to be successful, no matter who may seem to be more “wrong” or more “responsible for the damage”.
Through a series of research, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues tried to find the most effective kinds of repairs. The problem was, they couldn’t find any consistency – sometimes the most beautifully crafted and honestly spoken apologies didn’t work, while other times, something that seems trivial, like a silly grimace, was very successful. They couldn’t quite figure it out until they started looking at the partner on the receiving end of a repair attempt. They found out that it’s not exactly the nature of the repair that makes it successful; it’s the willingness of the other partner to notice and receive those attempts.
Now, this willingness doesn’t stem merely from other partner’s mood or good will, but from a number of different factors, one of the most important ones being the “balance in they emotional bank account” which, most simply put, refers to how much they have felt seen, heard, understood, and appreciated in the relationship, especially lately. But it’s not so simple of course – this balance depends, again, on both sides. It takes making deposits to the emotional bank (like responding to partner’s needs, showing interest for what’s going on with them, empathizing and being there for them, showing appreciation for who they are or what they do, doing small acts of kindness, etc.) and also recognizing these efforts. But that’s a topic for a whole another blog. Let’s get back to the practical stuff.
Usually, the responsibility for an argument lays on both partners, although it doesn’t always seem like that. However, sometimes one partner shares a larger portion of responsibility, and only after they may realize how much they have hurt their partner. If that’s the case, check out our article “How to apologize the right way after you hurt your partner“, you may also find it helpful.
6 steps to repair a relationship after a fight
Now that you know that ruptures happen even in the happiest relationships, and that mastering the art of making and receiving repair attempts is crucial for healing a relationship, let’s see what you can do to de-escalate the tension after a fight with your partner and get your relationship back on track.
1. Take a time-out and explore how you feel
Repairing a relationship after a fight takes many gentle moves. However, it can be really difficult to be gentle in the heat of the moment or right after, especially when you feel hurt or angry. If you feel flooded with intense uncomfortable emotions, trying to resolve a conflict right there can be counterproductive – extend or escalate it, or even trigger a new one. Instead, in the aftermath of a heated argument, it may be best to give each other some time and space to take a breather and decompress. You can both use this time to process what happened, feel your feelings, and explore what this argument meant for you. This will be very important later when you sit together to resolve the issue.
A useful thing you can do to collect your thoughts and get in touch with yourself during this time is to follow a 3-step process:
- Do a brain dump. Like emptying the contents of a purse onto the table, spill the contents of your mind onto paper. All of it. Write down everything that you think and feel, without any particular order and without a filter. No matter if it doesn’t make sense, no matter if it sounds silly, just get it all out.
This technique is particularly useful and relieving when you feel overwhelmed by uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. The act of taking the thoughts out of your mind and seeing them on paper helps diffuse the issue and calm your mind a little, because there are not so many different thoughts bouncing around.
- Sit with your feelings. After you wrote down everything you think about (and you may feel drained but relieved at this point; it’s normal), make some room for your feelings. How do you feel? Where do you feel it in your body? Can you name those feelings? Remember, you can experience different feelings and they can exist at the same time. You can feel love and anger toward your partner, you may appreciate them and feel disappointed about what they did. It’s okay, it’s your space; let the feelings flow.
- Think about what your partner can do to help you feel better. Ask yourself – what do I need? What it would take for me to feel different? What is my partner’s role for this to happen, and what is my role? Clearing this out can set you up for a more productive recovery conversation.
2. Refocus from “Me vs. You” to “We vs. The Problem”
When people feel hurt, angry, betrayed, disregarded, or unrespected, they tend to either attack or put up a wall and dismiss whatever the other person is trying to communicate (or both). These are self-protective actions, and they’re understandable. However, in romantic relationships, they rarely lead to a productive solution. Self-protection might be the first impulse in the moment, but remember that your partner probably feels the same way, and it won’t take you where you want to be – connected and safe with each other again. So, what will take you there then?
One person needs to break this cycle and show courage to expose themselves to a certain extent, to be vulnerable, and re-focus from protecting themselves to protecting the relationship.
If you want to fix your relationship, you need to be on the same team. You are in a relationship not by force, but because you choose to be with each other. Your partner is not the enemy. You are not the enemy. You two, together, as a team, have a problem, that you may be able to fix together. But it takes someone to be vulnerable enough to take the first step.
Stepping back from a self-protection attitude and turning toward a relationship-protection frame of mind is not easy. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult, maybe some of the hardest work you can do as a couple. But it is the strongest tool you have for building your emotional bond and helping your relationship thrive.
3. Actively listen to your partner and validate their feelings
Feeling heard and understood is the need that lays in almost all conflicts. To fix the relationship after a fight, you can start a conversation by asking your partner to share their feelings and their point of view. For a moment, set aside your perspective, set aside judgment and prejudice, set aside the need to disagree and defend yourself, and just listen. Express interest in their needs, feelings, hopes, what hurt them, what they desire, what they lack. Try to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective. Ideally, you want to come to the point where you understand how the way they see things and how they feel make sense. Even if this is difficult, try to find something you can agree with or that you understand, and acknowledge that.
You can validate their feelings by expressing understanding: “I understand now. I would probably feel the same way if I were in your spot” or by repeating or summarizing what they said: “It sounds like you felt hurt by what I said.”
Validating your partner’s feelings at this point doesn’t mean you agree with what they said during the argument or with their point of view. It doesn’t mean they are “right” or that they “won”. It just means you are willing to show them that you are there for them, that you are ready to listen and understand because you care about what’s important for them. When you start listening with a goal to understand, not to respond, it fulfills the need to feel heard and understood, and does wonders for rebuilding trust, safety, and connection.
Hard? Yes. Effective? Yes, yes, and yes.
4. Share your side without pointing fingers
It’s important to share how you felt during the argument and how you experienced it. While doing this, it’s crucial to make sure you avoid blame and criticism. You can be in a conflict without telling the other person: “You’re bad!”
Focus on using “I statements” and avoid pointing fingers with sentences that start with something like “You always…” and “You never…”. For example, statements like: “You never listen to me” and “You don’t care about me” are a big no. And no, a crafty construction like: “You made me feel unheard” is not an “I statement”.
“I statements” are in a form of: “I feel – When – (bonus: Because)”.
For example: “I feel frustrated when I am constantly interrupted in a conversation” or: “I feel overwhelmed and upset when you yell at me during a conflict.” You can also add why this is so important to you, for example: “I shut down and it’s difficult for me to continue the conversation. Also, I feel scared when it happens and I really don’t want to feel this way with you.”
What “I statements” ultimately do is create a more positive and less hostile atmosphere for communication because they frame a situation as something to be solved together, instead of sounding like a complaint about the other person or an attack on their character. This way, you decrease the possibility of your partner becoming defensive and increase the likelihood of them truly listening to you and adopting that “same team” mentality.
5. If you haven’t already, discover what the fight was really about
Fights about little things are often not about those little things at all. A fight over doing dishes may be, at its core, about unmet needs, failed expectations, respect, etc.
For example, imagine a scenario where Partner I didn’t do the dishes (again!) and Partner II complains about it, which blows up into an argument. What may be happening for Partner I is not that they just don’t like doing the dishes, but that they felt angry and unloved. They may be overwhelmed at work and worried about their mother who is sick, so they had a super stressful day, so they perceive complains from Partner II as a sign that they don’t care about their feelings. On the other hand, for Partner II, not doing the dishes after many complaints and conversations was a sign of disrespect; they felt unappreciated and taken for granted because they put in the efforts to change little habits that are bothering Partner I and make little sacrifices to make their life together more comfortable, but don’t feel the efforts are recognized or reciprocated.
So, the fight was, obviously, not about the dishes. It was about deeper needs of feeling loved, respected, and appreciated. When we don’t communicate openly, we can easily overlook what is really going on, which can lead to miscommunication, resentment, and cycles of unproductive arguments without a real solution. So, in our example, when Partner I and Partner II discover what the fight was really about and which needs, wants, or expectations were not met, they can discuss together what they can do in the future to change that and help the other person feel better.
6. Work together toward finding a practical solution
Now that the situation calmed down and you shared your perspectives and feelings, try to come up with a solution that will prevent a fight like this from happening in the future. Discuss what both of you can do to help each other feel better about the issue. Ideally, you want to be able to put this topic to rest and move on, with both of you intentionally taking steps to stick to the plan you agree on.
In our previous example, Partner I can, for instance, make sure they share their feelings more often and communicate with their partner when they feel stressed. At the same time, they can show appreciation by noticing little efforts Partner II is investing in their home by expressing it with words and with initiating completeying some housework tasks, when they can. On the other hand, Partner II can make sure to check in with Partner I more often and make room for some slipups without turning to criticism. They can also set boundaries, make sure they don’t give over their limits, and don’t sacrifice their time and energy without it being necessary because it can lead to resentment. Both partners can also come up with a more detailed plan about what they would do and how they can discuss better if this problem comes up again.
If the same issue happens over and over again without a resolution you can both agree on, it may be wise to see a couple’s therapist. The right professional can help you tremendously in understanding your and your partner’s thoughts and feelings, emotional triggers and needs, identify the reason you’re stuck, and help you learn skills to better communicate and solve problems.
Disclaimer: All these tips refer to after verbal arguments. If your relationship is physically or emotionally abusive, try to find a support system and consider a safe escape plan. An experienced professional can help you get through it and guide you in creating a plan of the next steps.
An argument in an otherwise healthy relationship can actually bring you closer, if it’s handled the right way. If conflict resolution is done right, it can bring positive things, such as learning how to meet each other’s needs better, how to communicate more effectively, and how to adapt to one another so you can both thrive. Overall, it’s a process, but it can be a powerful one. Try it, and good luck!
If this article was helpful to you in any way, please be free to share it with your friends and family. Also, share some of your useful tips for fixing a relationship after an argument in the comments.
Procrastination is something we all experience. You certainly know the feeling – staring at a blank page, having an assignment waiting for you, delaying to start a large project, and doing everything except what you are “supposed” to do. You carry around this heavy, dark cloud of procrastination, feeling miserable for hours or days, but you are still unable to make the first step toward getting it done. And even though you may be irritated, agitated, you can’t sleep… you can’t work either. Until finally, something happens, and you get it done. Often in a guilt-infused panic mode, at the last moment, but you get it done.
The quality of your work may suffer. The quality of your life definitely does.
But why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we procrastinate, even when we know we will feel bad about it? The answer to this question is not simple and goes much deeper than just “laziness” or “irresponsibility”.
Why do we procrastinate?
Contrary to what most people believe, procrastination is not about being lazy or lacking willpower. Since it’s such a widespread phenomenon, numerous researchers tried to get to the bottom of it and understand the roots and reasons behind it.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions induced by certain tasks – boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
– dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary
There are many potential reasons for procrastination, but the majority of results of scientific studies show that they come down to three groups of explanations, or can be a combination of them. They show that, usually, procrastination may be:
- a result of our brain’s natural tendency to be more drawn to instant gratification than long-term benefits
- a habit we use to cope with stress and provide emotional relief
- a way to protect our sense of self-worth
Procrastination is not a time-management problem; it’s an emotion regulation problem. So let’s get deeper into it.
I Procrastination is something our brain naturally does
The brain is pretty amazing. It is probably the most complex thing humankind currently knows. And yet, it can sometimes seem, well, a little lazy. The problem is, our brains are programmed to be more drawn toward instant gratification than toward future benefits. They’ll rather take immediate satisfaction than focus on a big picture and delay pleasure for the sake of long-term goals. In general, we struggle with tasks that require effort now in return to future possible benefits. That is why it can be so difficult to stick to long-term goals such as weight-loss programs or saving for retirement.
An interesting study from Stanford showed that, when we imagine our future self, our brain’s activity is similar to as if we’re imagining someone else completely. In other words, when you imagine yourself a day, a week, a month from now, it’s like you’re imagining, say, a mailman you saw once or twice. A complete stranger. So, in a nutshell, an emotional part of your brain doesn’t really care about your future self as much as it does for your present self. Not even close.
Looking from this perspective, procrastination makes sense. It explains why it’s so easy to procrastinate, and why it takes effort and active attention to break the pattern and actually start working on something you know is important for your future self, but your present self doesn’t like doing.
II We procrastinate as a way to deal with stress
Here is a funny paradox – although we know procrastination, long-term, increases our stress levels and brings a whole bunch of uncomfortable emotions, initially, we may use procrastination as a stress-relief habit.
When we feel stressed, drained, overwhelmed, or we have a low level of frustration tolerance (low ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations), our brains may use procrastination as a way to gain some strength and energy in the present moment. If you have something stressful going on in your life, if your brain is filled with overthinking, worrying, overplanning, anxiety, high expectations, etc., and you have something boring or challenging to deal with, your brain may be like: “Are you kidding me?! I can’t deal with this too! Give me some break!”. So, you turn to procrastination as a way to try to lower the level of stress by doing something you find less overwhelming. Watching cat videos is much less demanding than making 15 phone calls, isn’t it?
Since your brain is, as we saw, pretty shortsighted, it automatically turns to short-term stress relief, even though, long term, stress will increase due to procrastination. If this worked a couple of times, your brain may start adopting procrastination as a habit it can turn to when you need to deal with something you have no motivation for and your stress levels are high. When you’re stressed out, it’s best to handle the stress before you put excessive pressure on yourself to finish the work. You could turn to natural remedies for stress relief, such as marijuana flowers that can be found on online dispensaries such as HiBrid Co, since the compounds present in the marijuana plant are said to relieve stress symptoms. Of course, this may not be an option due to your state/country’s laws, but you may have other options within the cannabis family, if this is a route you are interested in exploring. CBD, for example, is much more widely accepted than full-strength marijuana, and can be found in many forms, from oils and water soluble CBD drops, to balms, tinctures, and edibles, to help with
a variety of both physical and mental issues. You should, however, consult your doctor before taking such medications. Once you’ve dealt with the stress, maybe you can make progress on what you’re procrastinating.
But what about situations when we procrastinate on things we love and value, those that are really important to us?
III We procrastinate as a way to maintain a good self-image
Here is an even funnier paradox than the previous one – when we really, really want to succeed, but are also very, very scared of failure, we may self-sabotage as a way to self-protect. In other words, we may use procrastination as both, a way to sabotage ourselves and, that way, preserve our good self-image. Let’s explain.
The self-worth theory of motivation asserts that one of our primary needs, as human beings, is the need to be accepted, by ourselves and others, and the primary way we see this happening is through achievement. In other words, we feel the need to be seen as competent and capable, because this gives us a sense of self-worth, and we are ready to sacrifice our other needs to preserve that image.
Basically, many of us have a simple model in our head that our performance determines our inner capabilities and our skills, which determine our success, and this success determines our self-worth, how we think about ourselves. Naturally, when this is the case and we are facing an important task, our anxiety and fear of failure skyrocket. Performing well on a task becomes crucial because, if we fail, it is not just the work we did that is at stake, it’s our self-image as well. But we still want to do it, it’s something we value and find important. So we have two strong forces battling inside us – a driving desire to achieve and a paralyzing fear of failure.
When the desire to succeed and the fear of failure clash…
We can strive for success, really want to do something, but at the same time be afraid of failure and what it means for us. When we are overly striving both away and toward something, we can feel stuck. This is exactly how people often describe procrastination – as being stuck, against a wall, feeling like having an obstacle they can’t get over.
When this is the case, we may use procrastination as a “middle ground” between these two motivations, a smart strategy to protect the picture of ourselves as capable individuals. If we procrastinate on a task that we value and care about, there are two scenarios:
- If we fail, we have built a good excuse for ourselves – “Well, I didn’t have enough time to do it better. It’s probably not an accurate representation of my abilities”.
- If, on the other hand, we succeed, we can say to ourselves how capable we are – “Wow, I succeeded despite such a short time I had”.
It’s a win-win situation. Except it is not, because we sacrifice our peace of mind and, often, the quality of our work.
So, how to fight this?
How to stop procrastinating?
The first step toward overcoming procrastination is to be aware of it. Procrastination comes in many disguises, from guilty Netflix nights to being “busy” and doing seemingly important tasks to avoid what is really important. It’s not always easy to recognize procrastination for what it is, until it’s too late. To overcome it, you first need to stop and notice it. The second and crucial step is unraveling what lies behind it. What is your, individual reason for putting things off? From there, you can take some steps toward managing those reasons and get rid of procrastination. Here are some suggestions and tips.
I Fight procrastination by training your instant-gratification brain
Sometimes, when it comes to doing things that we are not motivated or we don’t like doing, we need a little extra push to get things going. Two things can be helpful to overcome our brains’ automatic tendency to grasp for instant satisfaction:
Re-balance the cost-benefit analysis
Instead of letting the emotional part of your brain run the show, turn up your logical, rational side. Consciously make the benefits of taking action feel bigger and disadvantages of the “pain of doing it” feel smaller. So, you want to focus on the reward of taking action or finishing a task and make it outweigh the pain of tackling it. For example, you can visualize how great it feels to tick it off of your to-do list, or tie finishing each step of a task to a treat, to something you’re looking forward to. Try experimenting and see what works for you to re-balance things and get started.
Bridge the gap between your present self and your future self
Be aware that your brain is short-sighted and that it sees your future self almost as a stranger. Thus, keep reminding yourself – it’s still going to be you. You, with your kind of thinking, your memories, your experiences, your problems, and if you don’t take action now, you’ll probably have another set of problems to deal with. Imagine if you had to face those problems right now – how would you feel? Really try to bring that feeling into the present moment. Uncomfortable? That’s exactly how you’re going to feel if you let the consequences of your inaction for your future self to deal with.
In a similar manner, when you set goals, while it’s important to imagine long-term benefits, make sure your present self knows what’s in it for them too. Find a way to make the process more enjoyable short term. Play with little rewards and see what feels good each step of the way.
II Beat procrastination when you are stressed and overwhelmed
Like any habit, procrastination can be broken, or changed. In short, every habit has three parts: trigger, response, and reward. In the case of procrastination, the trigger is stress. Your response is avoiding the task. The reward is a little bit of stress relief. What you can change in this cycle is your response. You are always going to have stresses in your life – you can’t change that, but you can acknowledge it and change the way you respond to it.
So, instead of seeking stress relief by avoiding a task (and then beating yourself up about it and becoming more stressed), you can:
1. Take the time to notice what’s going on underneath
Stop and acknowledge what is really stressing you out and taking your energy.
2. Avoid self-criticism
Forgive yourself for wanting to avoid the stress by procrastinating. There is no need to criticize yourself; that will increase the stress.
3. Identify the first step and use the “5-minute trick”
When we have to deal with something complex, it can be difficult to start because it can seem overwhelming. Finding the smallest first step that you can start with is usually helpful. A goal or a task like: “Learn Italian” is huge, and facing it in that form can feel paralyzing. On the other hand, “Search for an Italian language teacher and contact them” or “Go to the bookstore and buy an A1 Italian language workbook” seem much more manageable. To make it even easier, commit to working on the first (or any) step for only 5 minutes. Usually, you will find yourself continuing beyond that, but it’s a good place to start, because that is the most difficult step.
4. Find another way to get stress relief
Your brain needs some energy, and is trying to get it in an inefficient way – through procrastination. Make sure to compensate, but from a different source, something that is better and healthier for you. Promise yourself that after the work you do, you will do something to recharge yourself. This is not self-indulgence, but a reasonable way to look at your needs and provide yourself with enough energy to continue functioning efficiently.
To sum up, these steps may go something like this: “I procrastinate – I may be stressed about this and this and that – It’s okay, I need some relief, and my brain is trying to do this by turning to procrastination. Let’s change that. I will work on this for a limited amount of time, and instead of inefficiently trying to get some energy through procrastination, I will provide it to myself by doing this and this and that afterward”.
III Overcome procrastination when it comes from fear of failure
People who are very fearful of failure (and many high-achievers and perfectionists fall into this category) often have a kind of simplistic model in their mind: performance = ability = worth. Sometimes we procrastinate on things that are important to us, that we love and value, because we are scared to make a mistake and what that would mean for us and our self-image.
If you recognize yourself in this, here are a few things you can do:
1.Notice it for what it is and don’t let it slide
Ask yourself what is going on, what you’re afraid of. What kind of uncomfortable feelings does this task inflict on you? Then think about how realistic this kind of thinking actually is. Are you focusing on the negative or catastrophizing? Is some kind of black and white thinking present? Do you impose some “should” or “musts” on yourself? Talking to a therapist about it can also help.
2. Change your self-talk and tame your expectations
Catch criticism or perfectionism and realize it’s not helpful. Instead, you can look at things as an opportunity to experiment. Have a kind and friendly attitude toward yourself and approach a task with curiosity: “Let’s see how this will go” instead of “Everyone will think I’m a failure”. Self-compassion is incredibly helpful in this, you may want to incorporate it into the way you think and treat yourself.
3. Focus on your values instead of on your fears
Think about your values, what is important to you, and connect them with a task you do. How can you make this task less scary? Instead of focusing on what you are fearful of and why you don’t want to do the task, come up with a list of why you want to do the task, what is drawing you toward it, what is motivating you.
4. Challenge the performance–ability–worth relationship
You are more than your accomplishments. You don’t appreciate your friends because of their performance, academic or career success, but because of their other qualities, such as kindness, humor, loyalty, their ability to listen, their quirks and uniqueness. Our abilities and performance are connected, that’s true, but not always; there are many factors that determine our performance. We don’t always perform perfectly, even though our abilities may exceed what we show at the moment. It goes vice versa as well – admit it, there were situations in your life when you got lucky and got an A on a test when you really didn’t deserve it.
Be mindful of your natural brain’s tendency to procrastinate and rebalance things.
Be gentle with yourself and find a way to de-stress in a healthy way.
Acknowledge the fear, and take it along for a ride. You got this.
Do you have some useful tips on how to deal with procrastination? Share them with us in the comment section below! If you like this blog post and find it useful, please be free to share it with others.
Heading to an intense job interview, facing an unexpected event that could change your life significantly, expecting important news… they are enough to kick anyone’s worry and anxiety up. It’s normal and expected. We worry about stuff we find important in our lives, such as finances, relationships, work, etc. Worry is a natural mechanism that can be helpful – motivate us to take action, come up with a strategy to improve our situation and solve the problem. However, as many of us know, it can get out of control and become unproductive, paralyzing, disruptive, and turn into full-blown anxiety. But where is the line? What is the difference between worry and anxiety? How much worry is too much?
People use these terms interchangeably, but being worried is not the same as being anxious. Although worry and anxiety are both associated with concern and discomfort, they manifest differently and their implications for our mental and physical health are very different.
Here are 5 things that can help you distinguish the two and answer the question: “Am I anxious or just worried?”
1. Worry is concrete and directs you toward problem-solving. Anxiety is vaguer and marked by rumination.
Worry is more specific than anxiety. When you are worried, you can pinpoint exactly what you are worried about. With anxiety, it’s not so easy – it’s more of a general feeling of uneasiness about a number of different scenarios. Thus, worry usually prompts us to act, to solve the problem, to use our coping skills, and build a strategy for dealing with a given situation. Anxiety, on the other hand, is paralyzing – it doesn’t direct us toward a concrete solution. Rather, we get caught in an endless spiral of “what ifs”, unable to come up with a solution.
2. Worry usually resides in your thoughts. Anxiety is all over the place – in your mind AND your body.
Worry and anxiety affect your body in different ways. Worry is usually limited to your thoughts that you can verbalize, such as: “I don’t know if I will be able to make it in time” or “Will I be able to pay rent this month?”. You may experience some unpleasant sensations in the body, such as tension and short-term emotional distress, but those are mild.
Anxiety, on the other hand, you feel both in your mind and your body, and pretty intensely so. The physical reactions can vary and can include tightness in the chest, pounding heart, sweating, rapid breathing, trembling, “knot” in the stomach, nausea, trouble sleeping or concentrating, etc. Together with worrying thoughts and an endless spiral of “what ifs”, it occupies our whole system, so it’s not surprising that when we are anxious, it can be really difficult to focus on something else.
3. Worry leads to thoughts you can typically keep in perspective. Anxiety makes you jump to the ‘worst-case scenarios’.
There is a logical component in worry – your brain is trying to protect itself from real and present danger. Anxiety has a wild imagination and brings you into a panic mode for things that, if you stop and think about it logically, or ask someone else, are not very rational. When you are anxious, you overestimate the risk and believe that you will not be able to cope with the consequences.
Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether our concerns are rooted in reality or if they’re completely irrational, especially when we are stressed. What can help us distinguish between worry and anxiety in these situations is the degree of our ability to control our concerns. Usually, a good sign that normal worry turns into anxiety is an inability to put the break on and get it under control.
4. Worry is temporary. Anxiety is more longstanding.
Worry is usually short-term; once we solve the problem or a concerning situation passes, our worry disappears. With anxiety it is more complicated; since it is so vague and intense, it can linger for long periods of time. Also, it is rarely satisfied – when one thing is solved, you start getting anxious about something else.
5. Anxiety often interferes with your daily functioning. Worry usually doesn’t.
If the levels of distress and discomfort are so intense that it makes it hard for you to function (to eat, sleep, concentrate, think about something else, etc.), it is a pretty clear sign of anxiety. Worry is uncomfortable, of course, but it is not as intense and it has milder effects on our physical and mental state.
Tips To Manage Worry And Anxiety
Experiencing worry and a certain level of anxiety is normal. However, when it comes to the point of disrupting your daily functioning – and even before that point – it’s time to react and take steps to decrease it and bring it back to manageable levels. Here are a few tools to try:
1. Schedule worry time
When your mind persistently goes back to the same worries, again and again, this technique can be very helpful. Simply, determine 15-20 minutes of your day that are dedicated to worrying only. This is your time to worry all you want. Outside this time slot, when anxious thoughts arise, tell yourself something like: “I see you, thoughts, but your time is scheduled at 8 PM tonight. I’ll meet you then.”.
Check out more about this technique in our blog post: One Powerful Technique to Ease Your Worrying Mind and Anxiety.
2. Pay attention and question your thoughts
Your anxious mind is not very rational, and will often lie to you and speak nonsense such as: “Everybody thinks you’re a failure”, “You can’t do this”, “You’ll never get this promotion”, etc. When you catch these thoughts playing in your head, stop and remind yourself that they are the product of your anxious brain. Then challenge them by asking yourself questions such as:
- How helpful are these thoughts?
- Are they really true?
- What is the evidence against them?
- What are some other ways I can think about this situation?
- What would I tell to a friend who had the same thought?
Remember, your thoughts are just that – thoughts. They are not always a perfect reflection of reality.
3. Stop jumping to an imagined future and connect with the present moment
There is an old quote from Lao Tzu, a famous Chinese philosopher, that says: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” Although this quote oversimplifies both depression and anxiety (there are many different factors that contribute to them), there is some truth to it. An anxious mind is overly focused on what might happen in the future, spiraling down the hole of endless “what ifs” without an answer. This kind of thinking is unproductive and keeps us in the anxiety loop.
Taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness and focus on the present moment can help take your thoughts away from the past and the future, helping you re-center and think more realistically. If you’re interested to learn more about mindfulness and its benefits, our blog posts Return to Now: Living in the Present Moment and 6 Reasons Why Integrating Mindfulness Into Your Life Is Helpful might be a good place to start.
A few mindfulness techniques you can try:
- Mindful meditation
- 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, two things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Focus on your breathing – inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat until you feel calmer.
- Focus on your body and how it relates to the space around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet, how your clothes touch your skin, where you’re sitting or standing, etc. Then ask yourself: “What is wrong with this particular moment? Am I safe right now, this minute? Let’s go one minute at a time.”
4. What are your strengths?
We all face difficulties and hard times during our lifetimes; it’s inevitable. Sometimes our worries come true, and we need to cope with real adversities that come up. Fortunately, research shows that we are, usually, more resilient than we may think.
Resilience is the ability to move through adversaries and rise from them. It is a set of skills and psychological traits that allows us to cope with struggles and recover from them. There are some things we can do to build our resiliency and rise back from difficult experiences more quickly. Read more about it here: 3 Things You Can Do to Recover From Setbacks More Quickly.
In the end, it’s important to know when anxiety increases to clinical levels, so you can react promptly.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by severe, persistent worry that is excessive for the situation, and extreme avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations. These symptoms cause distress, impair daily functioning, and occur for a significant period.
If you are experiencing anxiety so often that it interferes with the quality of your life and impacts your physical and mental health, please do not hesitate to ask for help. There are proven and very effective ways to treat it and cope with it successfully, so you can be happier, more productive, more satisfied You.
How do you cope with worry? Share your tips with us in the comment section below.
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Had something like this ever happened to you?
- Someone said or did something that you strongly disagreed with, but you didn’t say anything and then felt guilty about not speaking up?
- You set goals and then failed to meet them.
- You’re so busy pleasing other people that you don’t get the time to focus on what you want, and then you get angry at others?
- You suppress what you want to do because it’s not “practical” or because you have so many things you “have to do”
If any of these resonate with you, the reason behind it may be that your actions were (or still are) not aligned with your core values.
What Are Core Values And Why They Matter So Much?
Core values are fundamental beliefs and principles that you find important in life. They highlight what you stand for, what drives you, what you see as valuable. They represent who you would like to be and how you would like to live your life.
When making different decisions, our core values give us direction. They should provide the goals and criteria that influence the path we take, what we choose, how we behave. We derive a sense of fulfillment when living in line with our personal values because our motivations and actions are aligned with what we see as important in life.
Choosing your personal core values is one of the most critical decisions when it comes to living a fulfilled life. When we don’t honor our values, we can feel lost, unmotivated, like something is simply “wrong”, and our mental and emotional state can suffer. On the other hand, intentionally creating a life that is in accordance with your values instead of automatically and habitually responding to what happens around you, without awareness and purpose, increases the chances of finding a sense of balance, confidence, and fulfillment.
How To Find Your Core Values And Make Your Life A Little Bit Easier
Many of us have no idea what our personal core values are. And in a way, it’s not surprising. In a society that actively asks us to conform, it’s not uncommon to focus on meeting other people’s expectations so much, that we lose sight of what is really important to us. Our core values get buried beneath what we think we should value.
So, turning your attention inward and engaging in an attitude of curiosity about what makes you tick and what you think is important, can help you understand yourself better. From there, you can make wiser choices, and do it more easily.
But how to do this? How to determine your core values?
One way can be to, for starters, pay attention to how you feel in different situations. What makes you angry, sad, frustrated, bored, happy, excited? Examine these situations closely – what is the main theme?
Here are some questions that can help you start thinking in that direction:
- If you could have any career, without worrying about money or other practical constraints, what would you do?
- What kinds of stories inspire you?
- What kinds of stories make you angry and upset?
- Think about three people you most admire. What is it that you appreciate about them the most?
- What are you the proudest of?
Sometimes, a wide list of core values can also help. A shorter list, like the one on the picture below, may be useful. Or maybe a longer one, like the one HERE, is something you find more helpful and inspiring.
What you can do is take a look at the list and select 10-15 values that most resonate with you. As you work through, you may find that some values you picked are similar or naturally combine. For instance, if you value community, generosity, and kindness, you might say that service to others is one of your top values. So, analyze your choices and try to narrow down the list, to combine the values into groups. What are the main topics? These larger “groups” you made – those should be your core values.
Regularly Revisiting Your Core Values Is The Key
Our brains loooove instant gratification. Humans are wired to avoid short-term pain and chase short-term pleasure. This is why you fail to resist eating that yummy cake on your fifth day of diet (again), or why it’s so difficult to give up smoking. Small things that give us instant pleasure or delay discomfort, but don’t serve us long-term, are something we all occasionally give priority to. We sometimes lose sight of our more important goals and of our higher values. This is why, if we want to make wiser, healthier, more fulfilling choices, it’s crucial to keep revisiting them, so that we bring them back to the front of our mind and keep ourselves in check. Try to be present and act from a conscious, deliberate mind most of the time rather than letting automatic responses guide your behaviour. In other words – act as a pilot, not on autopilot.
Of course, not every activity you do will match your values. Sometimes you got to do what you got to do. However, to have that sense of meaning and fulfillment, like you’re doing something “right”, you need to be aware of your value system and try to spend most of your time doing things congruent with it. If you feel guilty or empty doing something, if you don’t find any meaning in it, perhaps these actions are not meeting your values, or even worse, are going against them.
Values can change over time. This is also why it’s essential to check in with yourself from time to time about what you value the most and if you’re acting in line with it. This can help remove those conflicting feelings that sometimes arise as a result of not staying true to yourself or not having your values clearly defined.
What are your core values? Let us know in the comment section down below!
Dahlgaard-Park, S. M. (2012). Core values – the entrance to human satisfaction and commitment. Total Quality Management & Business Excellence, 23(2), 125-140.
Sagiv, L., Roccas, S., Cieciuch, J., & Schwartz, S. H. (2017). Personal values in human life. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(9), 630-639.
I’m going to mess up. 😳⠀
I’m so stupid. 😩⠀
I’m a failure. 😖⠀
I did well that time, but anyone could have. 🙄⠀
Does this kind of self-talk sound familiar?
In a world where we expect so much from ourselves, it’s easy to fall into a trap of not feeling good enough. The way we talk to ourselves when we fail to meet our or someone else’s expectations is important. In these situations, it makes a huge difference whether we provide some comfort, kindness, and encouragement to ourselves, or we turn to self-criticism. Unfortunately, too often, we choose the latter.
Where Does All This Self-Criticism Come From?
Self-criticism is an inner voice that takes a derogative stance when we don’t meet our expectations. It includes negative judgments of your abilities, physical appearance, intelligence, behaviour, even thoughts and feelings.
Rigidly demanding parents, teachers, culture or religion, unhealthy relationships, or friendships that undermined our confidence can all be the root of our self-criticism.
When we are young, we soak everything from our environment like a sponge; we learn about the world, about ourselves and other people from everything we see or hear. The messages important people in our lives send are crucial in shaping what we will believe and how we will behave. For example, if your parents had incredibly high expectations and harshly criticized you for every small mistake, their words may become an integral part of your inner voice, translated into self-judgment. They probably had good intentions – they wanted you to build working habits, to do well in school, to strive for achievement, and minimize mistakes, because they believed this would help you succeed in life and be happy.
This kind of self-talk was probably helpful to you at some point – in order to avoid punishment (both external, such as, for example, being forbidden to go out or watch TV for a month, and internal, which is more powerful – experiencing guilt and shame from failing to meet someone’s expectations), you did well, you achieved great things, and you derived a sense of pleasure from that.
So, not only that self-criticism became an integral part of how you talk to yourself earlier in life, but it’s also kept and strengthened because you may believe it’s a useful strategy. However, as you may realize now as an adult, although self-criticism may seem like it can serve certain functions, it can be psychologically devastating.
How To Tame Your Inner Critic (And Why It’s So Important)
Self-criticism is like living with a bully. That scolding voice that’s giving you a hard time over small things, always looking over your shoulder and keeping inventory of your mistakes, can seriously hold you back in reaching your goals and undermine how you feel about yourself. Self-criticism brings an overriding sense of not being good enough, can keep us from thinking realistically and from being present in our lives, and can contribute to feeling anxious or depressed.
By criticizing ourselves, we focus on our (many times non-existent, or at least exaggerated) weaknesses, or think irrationally. This moves us away from constructive evaluation and inhibits our capacity to be fully present and rationally and actively engage in our lives. Instead, we get so preoccupied with shame, guilt, and frustration that we may make even more mistakes and feel awful about ourselves.
An important thing is – you don’t have to be the victim of your harsh inner voice. Your thoughts have a powerful impact on how you feel and behave.
So how to be more friendly toward yourself when times are challenging? Here a few tips and techniques.
1. Actively notice and challenge your inner critic
Sometimes, the little voice that puts us down is so embedded in our daily inner monologue that we don’t even notice how harsh it is. What we can do is to pay attention to what the voice is saying but not giving it the power over us. We can commit to notice it and treat it as someone who is unnecessarily rude or annoying, and actively stand up for ourselves, showing it how to be more kind.
Conquering that unrealistic, overexaggerating, harsh inner talk and replacing it with a soothing voice that is not only gentler and kinder, but also more realistic, is possible and more than beneficial. But it’s not easy. Proactively changing the way you talk to yourself may not feel natural immediately. And it’s okay – you are used to one way of thinking and it takes time to rewire your brain and create new pathways. The key is to catch yourself in those unrealistic and extreme statements and not let yourself get away with them.
You’re not good enough. – I don’t need to be perfect to be enough and loveable.
You’re so dumb – Whoops, I made a mistake. Let’s see how I can do better next time.
No one likes you – I don’t need to please everyone all of the time.
You will never make it. – This is really hard, but I believe in myself.
You never get anything right. – I haven’t figured it out yet. Learning is part of the process.
2. Develop a compassionate relationship with yourself
Self-compassion is a way of treating yourself with acceptance and understanding whether or not you behave intelligently, competently, or correctly. It’s having a friendly attitude and sending a message to ourselves: “I see you with your strengths and flaws and it’s okay, I accept the whole of you”.
This is a new concept for many people; it’s different from what we are used to. Thus, there are some misconceptions about it. Some people are afraid that, by being kind to themselves and refusing to engage in self-criticism, they will become lazy or self-indulgent. Others see it as a weakness, something that will stay in the way of their progress. We debunked some of these myths HERE, and provided some tips for practicing self-compassion, so you might want to take a look.
Like a good coach, self-compassion motivates us through love, kindness, and support. This helps us focus less on dwelling on our mistakes, and more on the present moment and moving forward. It is the opposite of self-criticism, which induces guilt and shame. On the surface, self-criticism can seem like it helps to motivate us to change, but in reality, it’s an inefficient motivator. First, because there is a high price to pay for it. And second, because self-criticism might keep us where we are for longer because we may be reluctant to admit our shortcomings, afraid of the overwhelming feeling of not being good enough if we do. In contrast, self-compassion provides us with emotional safety to see ourselves realistically and, from there, acknowledge our mistakes and try to do better.
3. What would you tell to your best friend?
Would you talk to your good friend the way you talk to yourself? When times are challenging and we feel bad, when we are dealing with failure or loss, the last thing we need is to be criticized. Instead, we need someone to help us see things from a realistic perspective and offer support, guidance, and reassurance.
You can be that friend to yourself. Thus, acknowledge your good qualities and abilities, make an effort to appreciate your uniqueness more, and offer caring and gentle words to yourself.
RAIN Technique for Dealing With Difficult Emotions
Sometimes, shame and guilt that come from self-criticism in situations when we make a mistake or fail at something, can be overwhelming for us. So overwhelming, that it becomes difficult to concentrate on anything else, or move away from self-loathing and self-judgment. What we need the most in these situations is something to help us ease the emotional chaos first, and then slowly start overcoming these intense feelings.
In these moments, the RAIN technique can be helpful. It’s a mindfulness technique used to soften and de-channel negative thoughts and provide a soothing balm for emotional pain. It can help you be your best friend instead of your own worst critic.
Take a step back and observe your thoughts and feelings. Be honest and acknowledge what you are feeling without trying to sweep it under the rug. Naming can also help, for example: “I feel worried right now” or “I feel so embarrassed for asking that question”.
“How am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body?”
Step 2: ALLOW life to be just as it is
Accept that those thoughts and feelings are there, as part of your reality. No denial, no trying to remove or change them, no mental resistance. Just simply let them be there. This doesn’t mean you like them; it just means you are brave enough to face the reality within you.
“These thoughts and feelings are here. I can accept that, even if I don’t like it.”
Step 3: INVESTIGATE with kindness
Like a curious scientist, try to approach your state with interest and without judgment. You can investigate possible reasons you may be feeling this way, or ask if these feelings and thoughts are useful or in line with reality. Simply pause to ask questions so you can better understand what is happening.⠀
○ When did this feeling start?⠀
○ What triggered it?⠀
○ Have I felt this way before?⠀
○ What is this feeling trying to tell me?⠀
○ How realistic is my thinking?⠀
○ Is it helpful?⠀
○ What do I need right now?⠀
○ What can I do to support myself?
When you have an intense emotion, it can feel like it is the only part of you that matters at that moment. But you are not your thoughts and emotions. They come and go, and you can watch them like clouds flowing by. You are YOU, unique and complex, and this is just one of the countless experiences you had and will have.
You can use this technique to ground yourself and not feel consumed by negativity when everything seems just too much. However, we are all different which means that the same things don’t work for everyone or in every situation.
How do you deal with self-criticism? Will you apply some of these tips to your daily life? Let us know how it goes!
And be free to share this blog post with your friends and family on social media.
Aronfreed, J. (1964). The origin of self-criticism. Psychological Review, 71(3), 193.
Neff, K & Germer, C. (2019) Kind to me. Excerpt in Mindful, 6 (6).
Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self–criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826-840.
Brach, T. Working With Difficulties: The Blessings of RAIN. Tara Brach. https://www.tarabrach.com/articles-interviews/rain-workingwithdifficulties/
Changing seasons can be beautiful, but they don’t delight everyone. If you find your moods falling as fast as the thermometer during winter, you are not alone. Seasonal changes can also bring change to the whole sense of our well-being. While some welcome the changing leaves of the fall and fresh show of the winter, others may find themselves having difficulties to get up in the morning or to concentrate, feeling lethargic, unmotivated, or sad. We refer to this later, less pleasant group of feelings that many people experience during colder months, as winter blues.
Winter blues are fairly common – about 15% of Canadians report that they experience mild changes in their mood, energy levels, alertness, and appetite during fall and winter. So why is this happening?
When Winter Blues Join Coronavirus Pandemic
During the winter, as we all know, days become colder, shorter, and darker, and we spend much more time inside. The lack of daily sunlight can throw off your circadian rhythm. This can cause your brain to produce too much of the sleep hormone melatonin and to release less serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that affects your mood. With winter approaching and us spending more and more time indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, the result can be a chemical imbalance in our brains that makes us feel low and sluggish.
Even before the winter weather arrived, we were already experiencing a lot of stress, anxiety, and emotional loss this year. Coronavirus pandemic left a bitter taste of resentment and exhaustion that we’re still experiencing. The negative effects are now maybe even more prominent than in the first wave. Holidays are cancelled and, due to our global responsibility to keep ourselves and others safe, we can’t cheerfully reunite with friends and family to celebrate. Many are struggling with routine and the lack of energy, with loneliness and feeling of isolation, with disturbed sleeping patterns, with worry about the future. Our brains have been on high alert for months, and we are drained and tired. This is why winter blues can be amplified this winter season – our coping mechanisms and emotional resilience are wearing thin and it’s becoming more challenging to lift our moods, which is especially needed during the cold season.
Even though times are difficult – after all, pandemic fatigue joined winter blues, and that’s not an easy enemy to battle – we can still do many things to lift our moods and energy levels while staying safe. Here are some suggestions on how to combat the winter blues amid the pandemic.
1. Go outside
The fresh air and the light of the day can greatly increase your mood and energy.
One of the most common, and most significant, causes of winter blues is the lack of sunlight. It can mess with our biorhythm and disturb the normal production of chemicals in our brains that are in charge of our sleeping patterns and mood regulation. Talking yourself into taking a walk when it’s freezing outside can be hard, but the benefits are tremendous. Research shows that just a 20-minute walk every day can have a profound positive impact on our brains, helping us reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and increase attention capacity and focus. Even just spending some time on your balcony or in your backyard and soaking up the winter sun can be helpful.
2. Get Moving
Motivation follows activation. Lift those endorphins up.
When we are feeling mentally tired, we don’t feel motivated to take action. However, ironically, what can help us feel better and actually increase our motivation is – action. Action often comes before motivation. Engaging in an activity can help us take a different perspective, think more clearly, give us a sense of achievement and, from all that, improve our mood and increase our energy. So it often works kind of in a reverse direction.
Additionally, the positive effects of regular exercise on our mental health have been shown to be so large, that it became a very common part of treatment for depression and anxiety. Exercise reduces symptoms of depression due to the increased release of endorphin, a brain chemical related to positive mood, increased energy, and an overall enhanced sense of well-being. Therefore, including any physical activity that you like to your daily routine is something that can be really effective in decreasing the effects of winter blues.
3. Connect with others
In a time when avoiding contact is crucial, staying connected is priceless.
Loneliness and isolation tend to make the effects of the winter blues worse. In our efforts to physically distance during the pandemic, we have to put our usual ways of socializing on pause. However, maintaining our relationships, even through virtual methods, is essential for our mental health. Social support is one of the best buffers for different mood problems, depression in particular. Technology brought so many wonderful opportunities to stay in touch with our loved ones and nurture our relationships. Social networks, video calls, different messaging apps, regular phone calls – whatever virtual platform you feel most comfortable with – are all great ways to connect, share support, or just get the basic social contact we all, as humans, need for optimal functioning.
4. Try light therapy
A special artificial light could compensate for the lack of sun during the winter.
Light therapy is a standard treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it is very effective in reducing the symptoms. It works by balancing out your circadian rhythm and increasing serotonin. If your winter blues are persistent, and especially if you are not able to spend time outside, you may want to consult your therapist and invest in a full-spectrum light box specially designed for this treatment. Your therapist might also provide you with some alternative options, such as trying out cannabis oil or other canna products, to regulate mood during your off-season. Although, while consumption of cannabis is considered safe for most users, it would still be better if you purchased some on the advice of your therapist who would be able to guide you towards the right strains and the quantity of consumption suited for your body.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
Although you may feel more unhappy than usual, the winter blues usually do not drastically affect your ability to enjoy life or cope with everyday challenges. On the other hand, if depressive symptoms are more severe, lasting for at least two weeks and seriously disrupting one or more areas of life – from work to personal relationships – we are talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is a subtype of major depression that usually appears and ends at about the same time every year. While winter blues can be banished on your own with some changes in your routine and habits, SAD is a serious condition that requires professional treatment. A combination of light therapy, counselling, and sometimes medication is shown to be effective in treating this condition.
If you are struggling to cope, please don’t hesitate to ask for help.
What do you do to brighten your mood and feel more energized during these cold months? Share your tips with us!
Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 6(3), 104–111.
Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015.
Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M., Gill, H., Phan, L., … & McIntyre, R. S. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of affective disorders.
“Everything happens for a reason”
“It could be worse”
“Delete the negativity”
“Just don’t think about it”
“Never give up!”
You’ve certainly said or heard some of these phrases before. It’s fairly common, and people who say them usually have good intentions – they are just trying to help somebody feel better. However, as you probably know if you heard some of them while you were going through difficult times, they don’t work. In fact, they can sometimes make you feel even worse, right?
But why is that? How can too much positivity possibly be a bad thing?
When Positivity Becomes Toxic
Keeping a positive attitude during stressful times can be incredibly helpful. It can help us cope with the situation, feel hope, and keep working toward a solution. However, being positive and optimistic doesn’t mean we won’t ever feel unpleasant emotions. Having a positive attitude is a good thing. Pushing positivity to the detriment of your authentic emotions is not.
Toxic positivity is an idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and positive aspects of life. It’s an attitude that being positive, and only positive, is the right way to live your life. This implies that any unpleasant emotions are considered as negative, and should be avoided.
It would be great if it was possible to feel good all the time. However, not only that it is not, but it can be even harmful to us and the people around us. Rigid and intense as it is, toxic positivity doesn’t leave space for experiencing all human emotions and being authentic. Instead, it encourages the person to remain silent about their struggles.
Toxic Positivity Can Be Harmful To You And Your Relationships
We have all kinds of emotions. Emotions are messengers. When instead of listening to ourselves and allowing ourselves to feel, even (and especially!) when these feelings are not comfortable, we fight and resist them — we create tension in our body. Different studies show us that hiding or denying feelings, oh the irony, makes them bigger and increases stress.
Our unpleasant emotions show us where we need some gentleness and compassion. They inform us that something is not right, not necessarily in our surroundings, but in the way we see the situation as well. They encourage us to pay attention to the parts of ourselves that need healing or the places in our paths where we need to take a turn. By suppressing or avoiding some emotions, we don’t allow ourselves to fully express and be honest. The result is denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic emotional experience. When we go into hiding like that, we deny our truth. And the real truth is – life can be tough sometimes.
Toxic positivity can be harmful to your relationships too. When somebody is sad, anxious, fearful, what they need is support and understanding. Generic positive phrases can, although unintendedly, send the message: “You are not allowed to feel this way. Stop. It’s not okay to not be okay.” This is not helpful; it can make the person feel guilty or unheard. To them, it can sound like their emotions are not valid and important, and that they are wrong to feel the way they feel.
How To Support Someone Without Being “Too Positive”?
Feeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most important contributors to good mental health and happiness. When someone is going through a rough patch, we may not be sure how to support them. What to say to help them feel better? What to do? How to help them recover from setbacks more quickly? You may be inclined to tell them to “look on the bright side” and to “be grateful for what they already have”. However, these monochromatic statements are usually not helpful, because they are, on the basic level, dismissive. When happiness and positivity are compulsively pushed, the person doesn’t have the opportunity to feel truly heard and accepted, understood and supported. Instead, it can seem like he or she is rushed to stop feeling the way they feel, their emotions minimized and invalidated.
If we, instead, let the other person connect to their emotions and allow them to share them with us without judgment or the urge to run away to positivity, we are giving that person much-needed space to be authentic and still accepted. We are sending the message: “You can be yourself. It’s okay to not feel okay. I am here anyways”.
With toxic positivity, although it is usually not our intention, we are showing the other person that we are uncomfortable with their feelings and that we will put ourselves in the first place, urging them to stop feeling the way they feel so we can stop feeling uncomfortable. A much better, more comforting approach, is to show the other person that we are ready to sit with them with their emotions, that they are not alone, and that we are there to patiently give them our compassion and support. It can be truly healing.
So, what can you say instead of generic, “encouraging” sentences to support someone? Here are some suggestions:
It is important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions. Once we honor our feelings, we honor the whole of ourselves. We accept our positive parts, but also other, not so pretty sides. Accepting and loving ourselves as we are is the path toward balanced emotional life and better wellbeing.
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