How I Learned To Own My Failures – TAKE Ownership

“Evil isn’t done so often by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves.”
-Reinhold Niebuhr

My first post in this series was about my start-up and business failures.

When I was done, I felt proud of myself. I was proud of my honesty and vulnerability, because  five years ago–maybe even one year ago–that post doesn’t get written. I would have hid my problems or argue them away, claiming the failures were other people’s faults, not mine, and I was proud that I wasn’t doing that anymore.

I should know this by now; as soon as I feel prideful, the fall is coming. The very first email response:

“That article was revealing, but missing something. How did you come to understand these flaws in yourself? You just tell us what your mistakes were, and not how you got to that insight, which is what I really want to know, so maybe I can do this for myself.”

Gut punch.

Publicly owning my failures wasn’t hard. That was easy, actually.

What was hard was getting to the point where I could actually own my failures to myself, and I didn’t really explain how I did that at all.

I wrote about the result of that work, which is, at its core, just me showing off.

That’s the dirty little secret of the fetishization of failure in Silicon Valley. It’s by and large a high-status excuse to show off. You tell everyone how many businesses you’ve started and how much money you raised, and how you are a better person through humility. You are competing to see who can be more humble. No one dives into how they actually learned from their failures, because they didn’t. It’s entrepreneur porn.

I hate when people do that…yet it’s exactly what I did.

That’s bullshit. If I want to write for me, it’s totally fine, I just need to keep that shit in my fucking diary. If I’m going to publish it, it has to be for other people, to help them.

That’s what this post is. A deep dive into how I actually learned to own my failures to myself. I’m writing and publishing this so that, by seeing my process, you can help yourself do something similar.

When My Perception Of Identity Was Fucked Up

I’ll dive into one example of a big failure, probably my biggest and most personal ever:

The movie about my life failed. And it failed mainly because of my bad decisions, and all of those decisions were ultimately driven by my deep identity and emotional issues.

I had an immense amount invested in this movie. Not money–I actually had zero money invested in it. But I had my entire identity and emotional state invested in its creative and commercial outcome.

If it succeeded, then I was a success. It was, at least in my subconscious, nothing less than a referendum on me as a person. Valid or not valid. Good or bad. Worthy or unworthy. Everything about who I was rode on the success of that movie, and every decision I made was deeply and unconsciously impacted by that.

The full story of that movie could be it’s own movie, but some quick, easy examples of how this emotional identity issue impacted my decision making:

  1. We had the wrong director. You know who picked him? Me.
  2. Very smart people told me I was wrong, and gave great reasons to not select this director. I ignored them. Why? My deep need to show everyone that I was right about MY decision. I made it about me.
  3. We had the wrong production company. You know who picked them? Me.
  4. Very smart people told me I was making a mistake. We even had a HUGE offer from the best studio in Hollywood. I turned them down. Why? Because, again deep down, I wanted to prove I could beat the Hollywood system by making an indie movie that I owned and I controlled. I made it about me.
  5. We still could have made a good movie–even with a bad director and the wrong production company. But the shoot sucked. You know why? I made the whole thing about me.
  6. Why? My need to show how smart and important I was became so manifestly important to my identity, that it sent my controlling side into overdrive. Nobody knew my life better than me. Nobody knew me better than me. So only I could make certain decisions. I screamed at a lot of people. Not because I hated them, but because their ideas about the character and the world of the movie so threatened my perception of myself that I couldn’t allow words or concepts that I disagreed with to even leave their lips. I emotionally and spiritually crushed everyone on that movie set, all because of my own emotional issues I would not face.

I could go on and on with examples like this. You get the point.

I can remember the night I knew the movie wasn’t going to do well. It was possibly the hardest night of my entire life. I cried more than I had ever cried in my life. I felt the worst I’d ever felt about myself. The emotional pain was so intense, so real, it became literal physical pain.

I wasn’t suicidal, but I honestly felt like I wanted to die. I’d spent the previous seven years scratching and clawing and fighting to get to this moment. I’d run through walls, over people, around obstacles, all for this? To feel this way?

I’d never felt so alone, so crushed, so utterly defeated. I had not failed at something. I felt like, in a very real emotional sense, that I was a failure as a human being.

Believe me, I FULLY recognize the self-indulgent absurdity of this scene: here I was, a rich and famous white guy, who someone gave millions of dollars and creative control to make a movie about his life based on his #1 New York Times bestselling book, crying because it didn’t do 50 million dollars its first weekend? Boo fucking hoo.

But emotions and identity and self-perception are not about objective facts (talk to any Trump fan to see proof of that). This is about the emotional reality of my life, and it was this moment–where I felt like my entire personhood was a failure and invalid–that set me on the journey I am on today.

That was my emotional bottom. From that moment, I knew I had to get help. I knew the way I looked at the world, and at myself, was broken, and it would break me completely if I didn’t change it. I didn’t know why, and I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was my reality.

A few months later I moved to Austin and started psychoanalysis. I also started angel investing at the same time. It was a coincidence, but those two things together taught me how to take responsibility for my actions and own my failures.

How Therapy Helped Me Shift My Identity Problems

It might be hard to understand how identity and the unconscious works. I can’t begin to give a full explanation of it, even in a long piece like this. One of my favorite blogs on the internet had a great explanation about how this works:

“The unconscious doesn’t care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets. It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo. Do not change and you will not die. It will allow you to go to college across the country to escape your parents, but turn up the volume of their pre-recorded soundbites when you get there. It will trick you into thinking you’re making a huge life change, moving to this new city or marrying that great guy, even as everyone else around you can see what you can’t, that Boulder is exactly like Oakland and he is just like the last guys. And all the missed opportunities–maybe I shouldn’t, and he probably already has a girlfriend, and I can’t change careers at 44, and do I really deserve this?– all of that is maintenance of the status quo, the ego.”

If you want to learn more quickly, Paul Graham has a great essay about separating your identity from the results of your actions, called “Keep Your Identity Small.” There are so many books and research papers about this idea, the problem is that they all have different names and different conclusions (quick start on background: a research paper showing people literally can’t do math when it goes against their identity, and a good book intro to this is Mindset).

The best tradition I’ve read to deeply understand this issue is actually the oldest: Buddhism (the actual Buddha called this problem in people “The Hungry Ghost”). In fact, you could say that this insight is the key insight of Buddhism: all the suffering of humanity is caused by the attachment to an identity or a result.

It’s even enshrined in their primary dicta, the Four Noble Truths:

[Don't worry, I won't lecture you about Buddhism, I promise]

[Don’t worry, I won’t lecture you about Buddhism, I promise]

How you define and see yourself and the results you strive for creates the suffering you endure. In essence, the less you are attached to things, and the more you just experience them, the better off your life is (I also included some basic reading lists for Buddhism at the end as well).

Simple to say, but hard and complicated to apply to your own life. I tried to learn this by just doing psychoanalysis and reading a lot about it. I have a large dent in my checking account and an even larger collection of flagged and annotated books as testaments to that effort. Eventually I got it “intellectually.”

But getting something in your conscious brain is VERY different than getting it deep in the unconscious. I only learned HOW to apply this concept (divorcing your identity from your results) to my unconscious—-to my own thinking and my own emotions–from the time I spent angel investing.

Lemme walk you through how that that process worked for me, maybe that will explain better.

How Angel Investing Taught Me To See Entrepreneurs’ Issues

When I was first starting my own companies, I was emotionally attached to each of my ideas,  and attached to their success. Not in the sense that because I worked hard on them, I really wanted them to happen. That’s normal. I was attached in the way that the ideas and the success became part of my identity.

When I say “became part of my identity” I mean this as literally as possible. I would, at least unconsciously, think that if my business idea succeeded, then I was a success. And if the business idea failed, then I was a failure.

I couldn’t look at my ideas or my companies objectively, with any kind of detachment, because they represented, in a very real way, a judgment of myself as a person. Their success was, in my mind, nothing less than a judgment of my validity as a human. Just like on the movie.

Being so attached to results was a problem. It prevented me from honestly and critically looking at my ideas and their results–even if they weren’t working. Especially then. It was too painful to see they weren’t working, because that made me feel bad about myself as a person. So I would lie to myself or convince myself that something stupid was smart (if you’re familiar with western psychology, this is basic rationalization and projection, and I did 100 times on the movie).

If you do this in a relationship, that’s not good. But it’s just about the very worst thing you can do as an entrepreneur (or a creative). Facts are facts, whether you like them or not, and if you are making emotionally-driven decisions about factual situations in start-ups, then you are going to make bad, bad business decisions.

Here’s where angel investing helped me: I wasn’t evaluating my own decisions or identity. I was looking at other people and their decisions.

My job as an angel investor was very simple: I bet money (through buying equity) on my ability to correctly assess three things: 1. the entrepreneurs who pitched, 2. the product-market fit of their start-up, and 3. the market they were competing in.

If I did it right, I made millions. Wrong, I’d lose millions. Even though I’ve stopped, I made millions.

The reason I did so well is because when I evaluated other people’s start-up ideas, I didn’t have any attachment to them. It meant nothing to my identity if they were good or bad, so I could be completely objective. I could look at the facts with clear eyes. I could ask hard questions. I could see other alternatives. I wasn’t tied to any ideas I had about myself, because these weren’t my ideas.

You know the feeling where you can see all the relationship problems all of your friends have with total clarity, but you can’t figure your own stuff out at all. It’s the same concept (there’s an entire business built around this ironic tension–it’s called ‘life coaching’).

What I found out was that when I wasn’t unconsciously worried about defending my identity from failure in business, and I let my ability loose in evaluating OTHER entrepreneurs’ companies, it worked great. I was really, really good at evaluating founders, start-ups, business plans–all of it.

The funniest thing is that I started to become an true expert at calling out the entrepreneurs who were just like me!

The entrepreneurs who were so tied to their start-up idea or their success were super easy for me to spot. Just like former drug addicts are the best at seeing the tricks of other addicts, I could see them performing all the mental gymnastics I used to do to avoid admitting clear facts that might make them see themselves in a way that hurt their ego and identity.

Simply put, I paired up the insights I got in therapy (being able to see how much I tied my identity and self-esteem to my fame and success) with the insights I got from my angel investing (seeing how other founders delude themselves in the same way I used to and how it affected their business decisions), and it showed me where I was making emotionally-driven identity decisions in business–so I could stop doing that.

Except, to make it REALLY work, I had to do something really hard: I had to turn this new super power on myself.

How I Combined These Insights To Own My Failures

“We do not learn by experience, but our capacity for experience.”
-Buddha

I turned that super-power on myself in a very specific way. It may not work for you, but I’ll list out the process to make it easier to find your way:

  1. For each business I’ve ever been involved in (and I included books and movies as businesses), I wrote down everything that happened. The objective facts. Things like revenue, time, result, etc. I got all the facts (that mattered) out of my head onto a piece of paper, as many as I could think of.
  1. Then I did something really weird (I learned this from a doctor who treats OCD patients): I pretended that I was talking to a different entrepreneur about THEIR business, and then evaluated the facts of that person’s business. I didn’t just pretend. I actually changed the name at the top of the page to a different company and a different person for each company. Of course I knew it was me, but this little mental sleight of hand was enough to free me up to dissect this company and “this guy” objectively, because it was a “different” person. It took MY identity out of the equation.
  1. Because it “wasn’t me” anymore, I was totally free to let go of any assumptions and just approach every problem with a fresh, beginner’s mind. I listed out, in detail, every mistake, every reason that every mistake was made, what other things the entrepreneur could have done better, anything I could think of. I went at each company like I would as an angel investor–razor sharp analysis and totally fucking brutal.
  1. Once I had all the facts and decisions out on paper, then I started to analyze them. For EVERY decision, especially the bad ones, I asked myself this simple question:

Why would “he” make that decision?

Usually the first few answers were rationalizations or excuses. So I kept asking the question, with small variations, over and over and over…until I got to a reason that “he” would make that decision that was not driven by facts or reason or logic or business sense, but was driven by emotions or identity or status. Just like I did with other entrepreneurs, I was relentless in digging until I found the real reasons for decision.

Those were the decisions I was looking for–the ones that had deep underlying unconscious motives that I wasn’t admitting it to myself.

THAT is how I was able to write the post so brutally and precisely dissecting my own failures in business. Once I had that angel investor perspective working, I turned it on myself, and my decisions–and I kept dissecting them until was able to see them for what they really were.

You Gotta Own It

There is one more part to this, one more key to the HOW of really digging into your failures. I left it to last, because it’s the hardest part, and no one ever wants to hear this:

This only works if you’re willing to take complete and full responsibility for everything in your life.

When you ask these “why” questions, when you really dig into your decisions, you are trying to find the place where you can own the mistake or failure or decision. If you don’t, then you aren’t really owning your failure–you’re just re-assigning the blame to someone or something else.

EVERY TIME I answered a “why” question and the blame fell on someone else, I asked a deeper why question, until I got to something I did or I thought that caused the problem. Only then would I let myself stop (and even then, I often had to go another level or two up to get deeper).

Here’s a great general example:

We all know that one person who says they keep dating crazy men/women, and they can’t figure out why. They go on and on about their multiple insane exes, and all of their problems…yet they never stop and make the obvious and simple observation that they’re the ONLY constant among all of those exes.

Obviously they’re making decisions that are either attracting those people, or allowing those crazy people into their life. Once is an accident, twice is a concern, and three times is a pattern. They will NEVER change until they admit that to themselves–that THEY are the cause of the pattern, at some core level–and then go about figuring out why and answering the fundamental question: what emotional need is being met by having crazy people as partners?

It’s not different in business. I did this for EVERY GODDAMN DECISION I MADE in this piece. It really fucking sucked.

I am not telling you that everything bad that happens to you is your fault. HELL NO. Even natural disasters aside, people have bad luck and shitty people do things to you that you did not deserve. God knows I’ve had those things happen–but did you notice I left pretty much all of that out of my failure list?

NOTE: Owning the decisions you made that led to your failures is not about beating yourself up, and it’s not about making yourself feel like shit. Don’t do that. Being honest with yourself does not mean you have to be mean to yourself.

Taking responsibility and owning failures is about clearly seeing where you are making bad decisions, and understanding why you are making them–so you can stop.

Taking Responsibility SUCKS

Make no mistake about it: that was really, really, fucking hard. It’s incredibly painful to honestly look at your mistakes and really fully own them, in all their glorious awfulness. To turn into that pain, instead of running from it, it about an unfun as life gets.

But it’s also incredibly liberating. Once I embraced the idea that I didn’t have to (and shouldn’t) judge myself by my successes, but that instead I could create a very small identity, and then see my businesses as things I did rather than things I was–then I was totally free to deeply critique them.

And once I did that, I could clearly see why I was making so many bad decisions–they were rationalizations for deep seated emotional issues. Not actual business decisions. And then, I could STOP MAKING THOSE STUPID ASS DECISIONS!

I honestly believe this identity shift in my mindset is responsible for why my current company is doing so well. Obviously, we are also hitting the three essential elements of start-up success out of the park, but Movie Tucker probably would have torn that all down, and all because he didn’t understand his issues, or even accept that they exist.

It’s not that I don’t have any more emotional issues. Please–just ask anyone on the Book In A Box team, they’ll tell you I have issues (we even talk about them in our meetings, like we do with everyone on the team). It’s that now I know where they are (at least most of the big ones), I can account for them, and I am open to talking about them and working to fix them. I understand that this is a process, not a result, and every day is about working the process.

The problems you know you have are almost never the problems that sink you. It’s the problems you don’t know you have (or won’t admit) that destroy you.

And that is why owning your failures is both so hard and so important–it’s the only way to improve and grow and change.

Buddhism Reading List:

There are so many places to start to learn about Buddhism. Maybe the easiest for many people is this book: 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s about how a person with SERIOUS identity issues found meditation.

But probably the best into Buddhism for Westerners, I think Zen In The Art Of Archery is also amazing. What both this book and 10% Happier have is an emotionally honest recounting of the way the mind works through these issues at the beginning.

That’s only a start though. From there, my favorite reading on Buddhism is pretty much all the books by Mark Epstein. I think his best is The Trauma Of Everyday Life, which is a psychoanalytic reading the Buddha’s life. Sounds really wonky, and to some extent it is, but it changed my life. Possibly a better place to start is Thoughts Without A Thinker or possibly Psychotherapy Without The Self. Or, if you want to go really deep, try After Buddhism by Stephen Bachelor.

I don’t feel qualified to give you any more of a list beyond that, because there is SO MUCH, and most of it is really contextual. What will deeply move one person is gibberish to another. And in fact, what was gibberish to me at one stage of my life, deeply moved me at a later one.

The only way to know you’re walking the right path is to walk that path yourself.

 

Education of One’s Self

“Our past shapes us, but it does not have to define us. Trust the timing of your life while focusing your thoughts and energy on what is in your control.”

To venture deeper into your inner spirit, you have to humble yourself and acknowledge what you do not know. The more questions you have about life, the more you will improve and grow. When focusing on a change I break down the goal into the most manageable action and then I build a strategy from there.

Focusing on evolving each day becomes a unique opportunity to remove the walls in our life while liberating our minds. Educate yourself every day until your last breath. To excel, you must have the courage and discipline to show up at my very best. You compete with one person and one person only, yourself. You compete to be the greatest you can be.

On our self-discovery journey, we must free ourselves from automatic judgments that arise with every experience we have. Attempt to understand other people’s perspectives. The world unveils its secrets to us very slowly. We never know anything for sure. So roll with the discoveries while being patient and open to connecting with new people who might not look and think like you.

The road towards self-mastery is a marathon, not a sprint. As we begin to acknowledge and dismantle the self-limiting and disempowering barriers in our lives, we allow for a more authentic version of who we are to emerge. Our past shapes us, but it does not have to define us. Trust the timing of your life while focusing your thoughts and energy on what is in your control. While you may not control everything life presents, you can refuse to be reduced by it.

— Coach George Raveling

Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes

Improving Your Ability to Handle Stress

Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself—and improve how you think and feel—by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.”

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid a car accident.

Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and your quality of life.

Fight-or-flight response: what happens in the body
When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

The effects of chronic stress
Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation. And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger, making it harder to shut off.

If you tend to get stressed out frequently, like many of us in today’s demanding world, your body may exist in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:

Depression and anxiety
Pain of any kind
Sleep problems
Autoimmune diseases
Digestive problems
Skin conditions, such as eczema
Heart disease
Weight problems
Reproductive issues
Thinking and memory problems
Signs and symptoms of stress overload
The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.

Cognitive symptoms:

Memory problems
Inability to concentrate
Poor judgment
Seeing only the negative
Anxious or racing thoughts
Constant worrying
Emotional symptoms:

Depression or general unhappiness
Anxiety and agitation
Moodiness, irritability, or anger
Feeling overwhelmed
Loneliness and isolation
Other mental or emotional health problems
Physical symptoms:

Aches and pains
Diarrhea or constipation
Nausea, dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heart rate
Loss of sex drive
Frequent colds or flu
Behavioral symptoms:

Eating more or less
Sleeping too much or too little
Withdrawing from others
Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Causes of stress
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.

Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.

Finally, what causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. While some of us are terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, for example, others live for the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will shut down when work demands escalate. And while you may enjoy helping to care for your elderly parents, your siblings may find the demands of caretaking overwhelming and stressful.

Common external causes of stress include:

Major life changes
Work or school
Relationship difficulties
Financial problems
Being too busy
Children and family
Common internal causes of stress include:

Pessimism
Inability to accept uncertainty
Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
Negative self-talk
Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
All-or-nothing attitude
Top 10 stressful life events
According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events for adults that can contribute to illness:

Death of a spouse
Divorce
Marriage separation
Imprisonment
Death of a close family member
Injury or illness
Marriage
Job loss
Marriage reconciliation
Retirement
What’s stressful for you?
Whatever event or situation is stressing you out, there are ways of coping with the problem and regaining your balance. Some of life’s most common sources of stress include:

Stress at work
While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and performance, impact your physical and emotional health, and affect your relationships and home life. It can even determine the difference between success and failure on the job. Whatever your ambitions or work demands, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the damaging effects of stress, improve your job satisfaction, and bolster your well-being in and out of the workplace.

Job loss and unemployment stress
Losing a job is one of life’s most stressful experiences. It’s normal to feel angry, hurt, or depressed, grieve for all that you’ve lost, or feel anxious about what the future holds. Job loss and unemployment involves a lot of change all at once, which can rock your sense of purpose and self-esteem. While the stress can seem overwhelming, there are many steps you can take to come out of this difficult period stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed sense of purpose.

Caregiver stress
The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming, especially if you feel that you’re in over your head or have little control over the situation. If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout. However, there are plenty of things you can do to rein in the stress of caregiving and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.

Grief and loss
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest stressors. Often, the pain and stress of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.

How much stress is too much?
Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle.

Factors that influence your stress tolerance level include:

Your support network. A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. On the flip side, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.

Your sense of control. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life—that you’re at the mercy of your environment and circumstances—stress is more likely to knock you off course.

Your attitude and outlook. The way you look at life and its inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re generally hopeful and optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Stress-hardy people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.

Your ability to deal with your emotions. If you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more likely to become stressed and agitated. Having the ability to identify and deal appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.

Your knowledge and preparation. The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

Improving your ability to handle stress
Get moving. Upping your activity level is one tactic you can employ right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move).

Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you’re feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who improve your mood and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.

Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.

Learn to relax. You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress, while a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.

Get your rest. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced.Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself—and improve how you think and feel—by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.”

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid a car accident.

Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and your quality of life.

Fight-or-flight response: what happens in the body

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

The effects of chronic stress

Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation. And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger, making it harder to shut off.

If you tend to get stressed out frequently, like many of us in today’s demanding world, your body may exist in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:

  1. Depression and anxiety
  2. Pain of any kind
  3. Sleep problems
  4. Autoimmune diseases
  5. Digestive problems
  1. Skin conditions, such as eczema
  2. Heart disease
  3. Weight problems
  4. Reproductive issues
  5. Thinking and memory problems

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying

Emotional symptoms:

  • Depression or general unhappiness
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Moodiness, irritability, or anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Other mental or emotional health problems

Physical symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds or flu

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Causes of stress

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.

Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.

Finally, what causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. While some of us are terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, for example, others live for the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will shut down when work demands escalate. And while you may enjoy helping to care for your elderly parents, your siblings may find the demands of caretaking overwhelming and stressful.

Common external causes of stress include:

  • Major life changes
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

Common internal causes of stress include:

  • Pessimism
  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
  • All-or-nothing attitude

Top 10 stressful life events

According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events for adults that can contribute to illness:

  1. Death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Imprisonment
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Job loss
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement

What’s stressful for you?

Whatever event or situation is stressing you out, there are ways of coping with the problem and regaining your balance. Some of life’s most common sources of stress include:

Stress at work

While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and performance, impact your physical and emotional health, and affect your relationships and home life. It can even determine the difference between success and failure on the job. Whatever your ambitions or work demands, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the damaging effects of stress, improve your job satisfaction, and bolster your well-being in and out of the workplace.

Job loss and unemployment stress

Losing a job is one of life’s most stressful experiences. It’s normal to feel angry, hurt, or depressed, grieve for all that you’ve lost, or feel anxious about what the future holds. Job loss and unemployment involves a lot of change all at once, which can rock your sense of purpose and self-esteem. While the stress can seem overwhelming, there are many steps you can take to come out of this difficult period stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed sense of purpose.

Caregiver stress

The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming, especially if you feel that you’re in over your head or have little control over the situation. If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout. However, there are plenty of things you can do to rein in the stress of caregiving and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.

Grief and loss

Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest stressors. Often, the pain and stress of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.

How much stress is too much?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle.

Factors that influence your stress tolerance level include:

Your support network. A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. On the flip side, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.

Your sense of control. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life—that you’re at the mercy of your environment and circumstances—stress is more likely to knock you off course.

Your attitude and outlook. The way you look at life and its inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re generally hopeful and optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Stress-hardy people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.

Your ability to deal with your emotions. If you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more likely to become stressed and agitated. Having the ability to identify and deal appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.

Your knowledge and preparation. The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

Improving your ability to handle stress

 

Get moving. Upping your activity level is one tactic you can employ right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move).

Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you’re feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who improve your mood and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.

Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.

Learn to relax. You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress, while a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.

Get your rest. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced.

Become the CEO of Your Own Brain

Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. The Mindful Self-Express

How to be the boss of your brain, rather than letting it master you

Posted Apr 02, 2013

To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind.

Buddha

You may have tried to control your thoughts at one time or another. With the aid of self-help books, perhaps you really tried to “Be Positive” and “Show Negativity the Door.”  And this may have even worked for a while. But sooner or later, you probably found yourself back at the starting point. I’m here to tell you that there is another way. And that is to become the CEO of your own mind – skillfully directing it to live in harmony with the other players of self – body and spirit.

If you follow the six steps below, you will be the master of  YOU in no time.

STEP 1:  LISTEN AND ACKNOWLEDGE

Like all good leaders, you’re going to have to listen to your disgruntled employee, and acknowledge that you’re taking its message seriously. Minds, like people, can relax and let go when they feel heard and understood.  Practice gratitude and thank your mind for its contribution. “Thank you, mind, for reminding me that if I don’t succeed in making more sales, I might get fired.” “Thank you for telling me that I may always be alone and never find love and have a family.”  “These are important areas of life, and I need to pay attention to them, and do my best to take advantage of every opportunity that comes up. I also need to learn from past experiences so I don’t keep making the same mistakes.”

STEP 2: MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR MIND

You may not like what your mind does or the way it conducts itself. In fact, all that negativity can be downright irritating sometimes. But the fact is, you’re stuck with it and you can’t  (or wouldn’t want to) just lobotomize it away. In the Book, The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris uses the example of the Israelis and the Palestinians to illustrate your relationship with your mind’s negative thoughts. These two old enemies may not like each other’s way of life, but they’re stuck with each other. If they wage war on each other, the other side retaliates, and more people get hurt and buildings destroyed. Now they have a whole lot less energy to focus on building the health and happiness of their societies. Just as living in peace would allow these nations to build healthier and more prosperous societies, so making peace with your mind – accepting that negative thoughts and feelings will be there  -that you can’t control them, can allow you to focus on your actions in the present moment, so you can move ahead with your most important goalswithout getting all fouled up. You don’t necessarily have to like the thoughts or agree with them  – you just have to let them be there in the background of your mind, while you go out and get things done.

 STEP 3: REALIZE YOUR THOUGHTS ARE JUST THOUGHTS

Most of the time we don’t “see” our minds. They just feel like part of us!  Dr Steve Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, uses the concept of being “Fused with your thoughts” to illustrate this relationship. To be fused means to be stuck together, undifferentiated. You feel like your thoughts and feelings are YOU and so you accept them unconditionally as the truth without really looking at them. “I’m thinking I’m a failure and boring – gee, I must be a failure and boring. Well. Isn’t that nice? Now I feel really wonderful.”  This kind of simplistic logic seems to prevail because we can’t see our own minds, so we have difficulty stepping outside ourselves and getting an objective observer’s perspective.

In actuality, our thoughts are passing, mental events, influenced by our moods, states of hunger or tiredness, physical health, hormonessex, the weather, what we watched on TV last night, what we ate for dinner, what we learned as kids, and so on. They are like mental habits. And, like any habits, they can be healthy or unhealthy, but they take time to change. Just like a couch potato can’t get up and run a marathon right away, we can’t magically turn off our spinning negative thought/feeling cycles without repeated practice and considerable effort. And even then, our overactive amygdalas will still send us the negative stuff sometimes.

STEP 4: OBSERVE YOUR OWN MIND

The saying “Know thine enemy.” is also  applicable to our relationship with our own minds. Just like a good leader spends his time walking through the offices, getting to know the employees, so we need to devote time to getting to know how our minds work day to day.  Call it mindfulnessmeditation, or quiet time. Time spent observing your mind is as important as time spent exercising. When you try to focus your mind on the in and out rhythm of your breath, or on the trees and flowers when you walk in nature, what does your mind do? If it’s like mine, it wanders all over the place – mostly bringing up old worries or unsolved problems from the day. And, if left unchecked, it can take you out of the peacefulness of the present moment, and into a spiral of worry, fear, and judgment.

Mindfulness involves not only noticing where your mind goes when it wanders, but also gently bringing it back to the focus on breath, eating, walking, loving, or working. When you do this repeatedly over months or years, you begin to retrain your runaway amygdala. Like a good CEO, you begin to know when your mind is checked out or spinning its wheels, and you can gently guide it to get back with the program. When it tries to take off on its own, you can gently remind it that’s it’s an interdependent and essential part of the whole enterprise of YOU.

STEP 5: RETRAIN YOUR MIND TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN

There is an old and rather wise saying, “We are what we repeatedly do.”  To this, I would add “We become what we repeatedly think.”  Over long periods, our patterns of thinking become etched into the billions of neurons in our brains, connecting them together in unique, entrenched patterns. When certain brain pathways – connections between different components or ideas – are frequently repeated, the neurons begin to “fire” or transmit information together in a rapid, interconnected sequence. Once the first thought starts, the whole sequence gets activated.

Autopilot is great for driving a car, but no so great for emotional functioning. For example, you may have deep-seated fears of getting close to people because you were mistreated as a child. To learn to love, you need to become aware of the whole negative sequence and how it’s biasing your perceptions, label these reactions as belonging to the past, and refocus your mind on present-moment experience. Over time, you can begin to change the wiring of your brain so your prefrontal cortex (the executive center, responsible for setting goals, planning and executing them), is more able to influence and shut off your rapidly firing, fear-based amygdala (emotion control center). And, this is exactly what brain imaging studies on effects of mindfulness therapy have shown.

STEP 6:  PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION

The pioneer of Self-Compassion research, Dr Kristin Neff, described this concept as “A healthier way of relating to yourself.”  And that’s exactly what it is. While we can’t easily change the gut-level feelings and reactions that our minds and bodies produce, we can change how we respond to these feelings. Most of us were taught that vulnerabile feelings, are signs of weakness – to be hidden from others at all costs. Or “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.”  These bits of common-sense philosophy were dead wrong! Authors,such as Dr. Brene Brown, provide us with a convincing, research-based argument that expressing your vulnerability can be a source of strength and confidence, if properly managed.

When we judge our feelings –we lose touch with the benefits of those feelings. They are valuable sources of information about our reactions to events in our lives, and they can tell us what is most meaningful and important to us. Emotions are signals telling us to reach out to for comfort or to take time out to rest and replenish ourselves. Rather than criticizing ourselves, we can learn new ways of supporting ourselves in our suffering. We may deliberately seek out inner and outer experiences that bring us joy or comfort – memories of happy times with people we love, the beauty of nature, creative self-expression. Connecting with these resources can help us navigate the difficult feelings while staying grounded in the present.

SUMMARY

To be a successful  CEO of your own mind, you need to listen, get to know your employee, acknowledge its contribution, realize it’s nature, make peace with it, implement a retraining or employee development program, and treat it kindly. It will repay you with a lifetime of loyaly and service to the values and goals that you most cherish.

How to Use Discomfort to Improve Your Well-Being and Transform Your Life

By Teddy McDonald, Contributor

Have you ever had that inner voice inside nudge you to do something you knew was going to be beneficial, but also difficult? One of those things that is tough enough for you to choose not to do it and stay in your comfort zone? We all have. There is an opportunity to go through that difficulty and get to the other side. We know that if we were to take said action we would benefit, but sometimes something holds us back. That something is going through the temporary pain, frustration and difficulty, even though we know there are greener pastures on the other side.

Here are a few things you can do to help yourself push through the pain, get to the other side, improve your well being and thrive! It’s time to get out of our little box and create a life far beyond our wildest imaginations. Without the extra push, we stay stuck and we settle for less than our potential.

Exercise is the perfect example of how we give ourselves healthy stress to get stronger. As you see, many of the people in the US and around the world don’t like to exercise even though all the science shows that you will feel better, live longer, and be happier. What do we need, to be hit in the head?

Changing your diet or cutting out a crutch is another tough thing to do, but you know that you’ll be better once you do it. Too much caffeine, too much sugar, too much food in general, all can be harmful, but some people don’t want to go through the pain and discomfort of giving it up to get to the amazing feeling of strength and vibrancy.

I recommend starting with small difficulties to get used to being in a tough situation, this is what yoga is all about. We create a safe environment to challenge ourselves, our mind body system learns how to deal with difficulty, and it becomes easier and easier over time.

Here are a few other things you can do to get the ball rolling:

Meditation

Sit for just a short time. Of course, you have to do something that’s challenging for you, so if you’re used to meditating, find something different. When I started my meditation practice, I couldn’t sit still for longer than a few minutes. After pushing through the tough times, I’m able to sit comfortably for 20-30 minutes and I love it. I feel the benefits all day long from a great meditation.

Crucial Conversations

I’m sure there is someone in your life who you’ve been avoiding or a conversation you’ve yet to have for one reason or another. Why are you waiting? This shows up in relationships a lot and sometimes people stay in relationships too long. I know I used to, but now, thanks to my wife and our communication, we make it a practice to deal with things as they come up. It’s definitely made our relationship better.

Travel to New Places

I love to travel and get excited about visiting new places, but I know that’s not the case for many people. If you’re one of those people, make it a point to get out of your comfort zone. Even if it’s a different section of your own city. Make a choice to do something out of the ordinary and you’ll always find that you’ve grown as a human being.

Be By Yourself

I know I’m guilty of checking my phone when Lauren goes to the bathroom while we’re at dinner, are you? Don’t lie. See if you can avoid that next time. Just sit, like we used to do, be uncomfortable in your skin and see what happens. I bet you won’t regret it.

There are a multitude of things we can do to push ourselves in a healthy way. The way muscles stay strong is through use of the muscle. You push it, it recovers, you push it a little more. The same is true for our psyche. There is a great cartoon that shows two booths, one booth has a sign that says ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ and the other booth says ‘Pleasant Lies.’ Guess which one has the huge line in front of it? That’s right, most people want to be told pleasant lies over uncomfortable truths. Don’t be one of the sheep in this world, take the road less traveled, you won’t regret it. I’m always here to help you along the way if you need some!