si dawson

experiments in self-improvement

Category: self-improvement

Stopping The Downward Spiral

Learning to love ourselves is generally seen as an upward path. With practice, and over time, we gradually treat ourselves with more compassion, respect and care.

Life, however, is rarely so straight forward. The journey to this self-loving nirvana is fraught with dangers and challenges, peaks and valleys.

Until we do reach this magical destination we can gain a lot of forward traction by watching downwards instead of up.

Rather than looking only to treat ourselves better, how about treating ourselves less worse?

I’ll explain.

It’s pretty normal for things to upset us. That’s part of life, and of growing.

Of course, there are lots of ways to help reduce this (and in fact, remove these stressors permanently) but I’ve banged that drum enough in the past. Right now, I’d like to talk about what happens after we get upset.

Often? We start to spiral. Downwards. Fast.

We get grumpy so we make bad decisions, which makes our situation worse, which makes us grumpier, which…

You can see how it goes.

I can remember when I was much younger, if something seriously upset me it wouldn’t be too surprising for me to be angry and in a bad mood for weeks (unless I got drunk and forgot about it or had a good rage out). Not particularly healthy – or fun for anyone around me. Yikes!

Thankfully these days all that junk is well gone, however this basic pattern is part of human nature:

Something upsets us, and then we do things that make the situation worse for ourselves. After that, we spiral downwards into a gigantic cesspit of doom. Doom doom doomy doom.

The good news is, when we’re starting to get into this kind of space, we can make gigantic improvements with only a tiny modicum of self control. Not a huge amount of self-control, just enough to stop us seriously self-harming.

So, what are some of these crappy self-harming things we might do?

  • Eat a ton of sugar or junk food (eg, *cough* an entire packet of donuts)
  • Drink too much (*facepalm*)
  • Take it out on those around us (thus flaring up other issues, which never helps)
  • Stay up too late at night
  • Engage in risky or dangerous behaviour (casual sex, cliff diving, starting fights)
  • Worse

The trouble with all of these behaviours is that they have side-effects that last much longer than the period of time we might otherwise have been upset for.

Eg, if I eat a whole bunch of junk food, generally I’ll break out and otherwise feel crappy for the next few days. A serious bender can leave me feeling maudlin and low for as many as three days. Staying up too late is guaranteed to screw up my next day. And so on.

Of course, the real problem is this – it’s all very well pointing OUT these behaviours, but when we’re feeling crappy, we feel compelled to do them. Merely knowing they’re bad isn’t going to help us. We know they’re bad, but we don’t care. If we had the self control to not do them when we were upset, we wouldn’t be doing them. Hello? We’re upset!

So. How do we get around this?

First of all, acknowledge that it’s ok if we do these dumb things. Really. They’re just choices. Beating yourself up for making a bad choice is often as bad, if not worse than the actual behaviour itself. How long can guilt last for? Do you think our body is going to optimally process whatever poison we’ve put into it if we’re also pouring massive amounts of hate its way as well?

Another drum I’ve beaten to death in the past.

Here’s something new though.

If, even while we’re upset, we can acknowledge that we’re going to do something dumb, we can easily take tiny steps to minimise the damage.

Sure, go ahead and eat all those donuts, but follow them up with washing your face before you go to bed and drinking a bunch of water. Then tomorrow when you’re feeling a bit better, do some crunches and have a salad to “balance it out” (yes, those are air quotes).

If you wanna get hammered, go ahead and do it. But do it somewhere safe – eg, at home, not at a bar where it’s going to cost you way more and you might get in a fight (or worse). Drink something you know won’t give you a terrible hangover (for me, avoid white spirits and stick to Guinness or whisky). Before you start, line up pints of water and make sure you down ‘em so you’re WELL hydrated before you sleep.

If you know you’re going to take your bad mood out on those around you, get the hell away from them. Just say “Shitty mood. Need space. Not you. Will come back.” Whatever minimum communication you can grunt out to ensure that the other person doesn’t think it’s their fault, then go burn off that energy some other way – even if it’s screaming and swearing your whole way down the street – getting angry around people who don’t know you (and thus don’t care as much) is way less damaging than being around those who know and love you.

If you have the compulsion to go randomly fuck someone – make damn sure you (or they, or both) wear a condom. The last thing you want is to wake up post-anger with a kid or a disease. For bonus points, have casual sex with someone you already know and care about. It’ll be less harmful to you emotionally and energetically (but that’s a whole other blog post).

When we’re in a seriously shitty headspace, finding the discipline to not hurt ourselves is often outside our reach. This is totally normal and nothing to be ashamed about.

However, finding enough discipline to minimise the damage from this behaviour? That’s much easier. And you know what? It’s still loving ourselves.

Most importantly, it’ll shrink the post-blow-out damage. Instead of feeling crappy for days, we’ll cut it back to feeling crappy for hours instead. This is a huge win. It gets us back in a higher energetic space sooner. It stops our lives from spiralling uncontrollably downwards.

Sure, it’s not as perfect as immediately dropping whatever’s upset us (which is quite feasible, with practice) but it is a huge step in the right direction.

The sooner we’re back in a happy place, the sooner we can deal with whatever’s upset us. Minimising self harm and thus preventing a larger downward spiral is a great improvement. It’s a practical way to love ourselves that doesn’t require superhuman self-discipline.

It’s still loving ourselves, even in the midst of disaster. It’s still taking small but certain forward steps, and that’s what this journey is really all about.

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    Look Where You Want To Go

    There’s a simple trick for creating the life of your dreams: Look where you want to go.

    The only catch here is: our brains are not our friends. They’re useful tools, but they’re not our friends.

    One of the key ways they’re not is by constantly focusing on what’s negative  (search for “cognitive biases” for others).

    There are sensible evolutionary reasons for this.

    In life-and-death terms, good things (eg delicious berries on a bush) are lower priority than, say, a tiger that’s about to eat our head (generally known as “a bad thing”).

    So, we’re tuned: Pay MUCH more attention to bad things. They’re more urgent, they’re more important.

    However, now we’re roaming the streets not the savannah, this evolutionary priority isn’t helping so much.

    These days, our actual life-and-death risks are much more probabilistic and long term – heart disease, cancer etc. They’re no longer things that jump out of a bush and try to eat us as we’re walking to work.

    In fact statistically, surprising events are generally pretty benign – spilling coffee on ourselves, bumping into someone on an escalator, a boss shouting at us at work. Not great, sure, but no longer life threatening.

    [obviously if you live in a war zone or an otherwise rough area, you're in the modern equivalent of tiger jumping territory, so things are a little different for you.]

    The real problem is, our brains still treat negative events as if they were ALL life and death.

    Which doesn’t help us at all.

    Of greater concern is the larger effect of our brains instinctively focusing on the negative.

    After all, what are our lives but the sum total of our experiences and memories?

    Our lives are simply the sum of everything we pay attention to.

    If we are focused on negative events – particularly fears and worries (which, almost by definition haven’t happened), then that is what will fill our existence.

    This is particularly obvious in relationships.

    We may have a perfectly fine relationship with someone, but if what we’re most focused on is some negative event that happened, or some fear that didn’t – how is that going to colour our feelings towards them?

    What’s actually an otherwise decent relationship will seem utterly awful.

    Now obviously, I’m not suggesting being myopic. Every relationship has issues and these should be dealt with.

    However, if you WANT the relationship to be good, focusing on the positive aspects will create that much more reliably than constantly looking for what’s wrong.

    If your partner does something a bit off, assume they mean well. They love you and want to be with you, right? So why hold the picture that they’ve intentionally tried to hurt you? It’s only destructive.

    If you get quiet and pay attention, you’ll be able to see this in action.

    When you look at someone, what’s the general feeling you’re filled with?

    THAT is the sum of all your most common thoughts about that person (whether conscious or subconscious)

    • If they’re mostly negative thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty crappy.
    • If they’re mostly positive thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty great when you think about them.

    (here are some techniques for dumping those non-loving feelings)

    Of course, this goes for everything in our lives.

    Think about your job. Your home. Your commute. Your family. Your wardrobe. Your bank balance.

    You can instantly feel what your predominant thoughts are.

    Is your brain focused on the good or bad aspects?

    Look where you want to go.

    If you want a boring life, focus your attention on the boring things around you.

    If you want a happy life, pay attention to what is already around you that brings you happiness and joy.

    If you want a peaceful life, pay attention to what’s peaceful and choose to let the rest of it go.

    Our eyes and ears face forward for a reason: Look where you want to go.

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      A Simple Meditation

      I’d been feeling pretty crappy for a couple of days.

      None of my tools really seemed to be doing it for me, and all in all I’d been feeling quite lost.

      Here’s what I started doing to fix it.

      Saying “yes”.

      And then saying “yes” some more.

      And some more. (and some more)

      Here’s the thing. By a huge margin, “yes” is the most positive thing we can say. Kinda obvious I know.

      Interestingly, it also has a disproportionate effect on our brains when we say it.

      Don’t believe me though. Try it yourself.

      1. Say “No” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.
      2. Say “Yes” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.

      It’s not an accident there are so many books (yep, that’s over 500,000) pushing people towards “yes”.

      In any kind of sales or negotiation (which if you stop and think about it is most of life), if you can get the person saying yes ABOUT ANYTHING, they’ll be significantly more likely to say yes to the specific thing you want them to (eg “buy this car” or “make me a sandwich”).

      Saying yes changes our brains.

      Now of course, even though saying yes by itself might be helpful, there are some simple ways we can really step this up a notch.

      First is tweaking our posture. Improve our posture and we’ll immediately improve our state of well being.

      So, I did that. I sat up straight. Ok, so I jammed myself against a wall, since I didn’t really feel like sitting up straight. But it still helped.

      Second thing is to let go of any angry or opposing thoughts, or any physical tension that arises while we’re saying yes.

      Yep, release the mental and physical noise.

      Why does this occur?

      Well, let’s take it in steps.

      Why are we feeling crappy? Well, there’s going to be something upsetting us, right?

      So, instinctively, we’ll be resisting this (because it’s upsetting). Ie, saying “no” to this whatever-it-is.

      Now, when we consciously choose to say yes, what are we doing? We’re loving whatever-this-awful-thing-is.

      We’re choosing to be loving about it. Which is always helpful.

      However, any resistance is going to come racing to the top – ie, anything in us that is the opposite of loving.

      Usually it’s pretty obvious. We’ll feel clutching or a physical tension in our stomach or chest. Our brain will be screaming “What the hell? No WAY am I saying YES. That guy’s an asshole” (etc *yawn* etc)

      Well, that’s all very nice, but really, that resistance IS the reason we’re feeling crappy (not whatever the resistance is actually about).

      It’s not the event that affects us, only our reactions to it.

      It’s nothing to do with what’s outside us. It’s actually (as always) what’s INSIDE that matters.

      Events don’t bother us. Our reactions TO those events bother us.

      So anyway. Saying yes brings all this junk to the surface.

      And then we can let it go.

      Mantras are all very well and good. It’s definitely smart to focus on what you want. Eg, feeling more positive.

      However, unless you actually work on the energy surrounding it, you’re not going to get very far. In other words, clear your FEELINGS about whatever it is that’s bothering you.

      Saying “yes” externally while internally you’re screaming “no” is just gonna leave you spinning in an unhappy circle.

      Hence, posture. Hence, releasing.

      Oh, and water. Water is always recommended.

      (I also find physically tapping anywhere I feel tension helps to unblock the energy and let it out too).

      So anyway. This is what I did. I sat up straight. I drank some water. I said “yes”, over and over to myself. I let go of any noise (physical, mental, emotional) that floated up.

      And you know what? I did start to feel better. Not the fastest I ever have – but when you’re super low, you’re really too low to do very much. It all helps.

      The key thing is, it lifted me up enough, just enough that I could start using more powerful tools.

      It got me back on track.

      And really, isn’t that just what’s needed, at least every now and then?

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        I’ll Be Happy When

        As humans, we have a strong tendency to put off our happiness.

        We think we’ll be happy…

        • when we achieve some goal (new car, new job, “success”)
        • when we’re loved
        • when we feel safe
        • when we have $X
        • when “something” changes for us

        … and of course, the advertising industry plays right into this. They love this tendency – it makes it a doddle to sell us all manner of crap. All they have to (implicitly) promise is that when we buy their whatever, it’ll make us happy.

        There’s a key problem though. Humans adjust. Quickly. Our “I’ll be happy when” list will definitely change over time (do you still want a GI Joe action figure for Christmas?), but it never empties.

        When we get the new job, then we want to have saved more money. When we’ve saved more money, we want a partner. When we have a partner, we want them to be nicer…

        At the core of this whole mess is a very simple truth:

        We’re not allowing ourselves to be happy.

        We’re putting up all these rules, these conditions – much like we do with love, or judgement

        Sure, a new car may be nice, but do we really want the car or do we want the feeling (happiness) that we think the car will bring us?

        Obviously there are practicalities with having a new car (it won’t break down as much, we need it to carry groceries, etc), but at its core, so much of what we want is because we think it’ll make us happy (feeling loved, feeling safe…).

        When we get that thing, we then push the goalposts farther away, thereby ensuring we’re never actually happy.

        We have the whole thing backwards.

        The secret here isn’t to get the stuff (although that’s fun too), it’s to decide to be happy before you get the stuff. At the very least, even if you don’t get the “whatever” you’ll still be happy. More useful is that it’s always easier to achieve a goal if you’re already happy.

        Now, the practical bit – how the hell do you do that?

        Well, the first thing to realise is that all these conditions are just pictures in our heads. We can let them go. Remember, you’re the boss. Of all of it. Every single silly picture in your head, you can let go of and replace with better ones. And really, why think about something if it’s just making us miserable?

        So, how do we find those pictures? How do we call them to the surface so we can let go of them?

        What I’ve found works well is just to ask myself

        “I’ll be happy when…”

        and let my mind fill in the gap. Nature abhors a vacuum, so our minds will automatically fill in the end of the sentence with… something!

        Once we have that picture – the whatever-it-is that will finally enable us to be happy, simply let it go.

        You can always ask yourself “Can I let this go?” but really, unless you’re answering yes, you’re lying to yourself – or deliberately harming yourself (this can happen too). The bottom line is, you can always let it go. You’re the boss of your mind.

        You’ll be amazed at the giant list of nonsense that will sprout up once you start asking yourself this. It’s ok. Just let each thing go, and you’ll feel yourself getting lighter and, yes, happier. By letting go of each thing, we’re gradually giving ourselves permission to be happy. We’re removing all those artificial conditions we’ve placed in our way.

        IT’S OK TO BE UNCONDITIONALLY HAPPY.

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          Tetris Relationships

          There’s an amusing saying:

          “If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.”

          I don’t know a better quote for describing the effect of holding grudges.

          Where this is particularly noticeable, and damaging, is in the area of relationships.

          Everyone is growing. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is occasionally tired, thoughtless, distracted or careless.

          Things happen and people get hurt – no matter how careful we are towards the person we love (see also: every parent ever).

          This is a normal part of life, and to be expected.

          Where it all gets messy is when our partner makes these mistakes and we choose to hang on to those mistakes instead of letting them go.

          Eventually, this will kill any relationship. How can it possibly survive when every time we look at them our head and hearts are filled with the thousand awful things we remember them doing?

          As always, it’s helpful to keep things simple. Make a choice:

          Do you want to have a loving, happy relationship …

          … or do you want your relationship to die?

           
          I realise that sounds melodramatic and a prime example of either-or thinking, however on a long enough time scale, that’s your choice.

          Of course, if you’re only in the relationship for the short term or you really don’t give a shit about the other person, then feel free to ignore everything I’m saying.

          The thing is, if we don’t proactively choose to let go/heal/whatever the myriad of minor (and not so minor) bumps and scrapes that eventuate from any average relationship, then we are actively choosing to let the relationship die.

          No one can sustain under that much pain. Eventually, the traumatic blocks stack up until they hit our ceiling and it’s game over for that relationship.

          If we refuse to learn, if we refuse to let go of these blocks, these hurts, we’ll be doomed to live the same relationship over and over. Watching blocks build up, experiencing all that pain until eventually we’re forced, once again, to quit.

          The other thing here is – much like Tetris, you have to keep working at this constantly. Couples counselling once a year or once a decade isn’t going to cut it. You have to get up every damn day with the intention of letting go of whatever pain comes up.

          If we don’t let it go, we’ll be doomed to think about it again and again, letting that wound fester like a rotting abscess.

          Every time we rethink about something that has wronged us, to some degree we are reliving that trauma. We’re strengthening the neural pathways. We’re making it worse for ourselves.

          What may have been a fairly minor misunderstanding, after we’ve thought and rethought about it dozens or hundreds of times can expand into a soul crushing trauma of biblical proportions. How on earth can we be expected to remain loving towards someone with that kind of storm raging through us?

          Plus, of course, much like Tetris, small hurts or mistakes lead to larger ones.

          Why is this? Because we look at events through the filter of our minds. If we decide (for whatever reason) that a person is, say, untrustworthy, then everything they do will be viewed through that filter. Every little word and action will be judged and suspected. Grudges lead to judgement.

          In short: once we have a belief, we use our brains to find data to validate that belief.

          Now sure, some people are untrustworthy, that’s fine. But a lot of the time we paint people incredibly unfairly, simply because of some trauma or other that we’re carrying around. Half the time it really has nothing to do with them at all.

          On top of that – this is someone we’re supposed to be in love with. Shouldn’t we be at least trying to be loving towards them? How can we do that if we’re harshly judging every little thing they do and say?

          The key, of course, is not too get too carried away with our minds. Realise that it’s our belief that is making us “find” supporting evidence. Once we drop that belief, voila, most or all of that evidence will fall away with it. We’ll see that our prejudices have been colouring our observations. Our pain has been creating more pain around us.

          The great thing is – when we knock out a grudge or limiting belief, it’s like knocking out a line in Tetris. Except it also ensures that it will (almost) never come back. When we heal the hurt that caused us to believe someone was untrustworthy, we will have learned that lesson. For a start, we’ll be able to accurately interpret their actions. Secondly, we’ll stop attracting seemingly untrustworthy people into our lives. We won’t need to; we’ve learned what we needed to learn, the universe can now move us on to our next lessons.

          Best of all, unlike Tetris, the more we let go of the slower the blocks stack up. It’s a game which starts insanely hard and gets easier and easier the more we play.

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          • Look Where You Want To Go
          • A Simple Meditation
          • I’ll Be Happy When
          • Tetris Relationships
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