Authoring our Story

The stories we tell about ourselves and our experiences are important because they allow us to make sense out of our daily life and maintain coherence and continuity as we move through life.  

Everyone loves a good story. In many ways, we are the stories we tell. Researchers have looked closely at the role narratives play in our personality and ability to cope as we use stories as a means of making sense out of a complex and often confusing world. Dan McAdams Ph.D., a personality researcher at Northwestern University, describes how stories overlap with our development as we have more and more roles to play and goals or hopes to pursue. The way we tell stories or recount events also influences the way we remember past events and how we perceive ourselves and others. 

Perhaps most relevant today, research suggests that the way we tell stories is associated with well-being. For example, McAdams found that having more stories of redemption when recalling a life story is associated with higher well-being. His research also found that highly generative adults frequently recall how negative events in the past led to positive outcomes.  

Ultimately, stories help us to make meaning out of chaos and allow us to better understand our experiences, while providing an overarching structure to the experience of moving through life and a coherence that is important for our sense of self.  

Reflecting on the narratives you use to describe yourself and the stories you tell can be insightful. Such reflection can also allow for us to pause and think about the way we present ourselves and communicate our values and beliefs. 

What stories do you tell about yourself and your experiences? What do your stories suggest about your personality and coping style? Do you tell stories of overcoming hardship, fairness or unfairness, optimism or pessimism? What are your most important stories and how to these connect to your identity or sense of coherence and meaning in your life?

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Improving Your Mindfulness Practice by Checking Email

It is easy to forget to pay attention to our basic everyday experiences or the present moment, which is a central component of mindfulness. One excellent way of improving our ability to recapture our awareness involves the use of reminders. Many people make lists or use post-it notes, place items near the front door, or set alarms on their phones as reminders for important tasks to complete. This same approach can be incorporated into your mindfulness practice!  

Try practicing one of the following approaches for setting reminders or cues to recapture your awareness and develop a habit for practicing mindfulness.   

Select one repetitive task that occurs throughout your day. For example, you might select checking your email or social media, walking your dog, or preparing a meal. Practice using these tasks as cues to practice mindfulness. Try pausing for a moment and observing your breathing. You might try counting ten breaths before moving forward with checking your inbox. You can incorporate other mindfulness or grounding techniques here as well or simply notice the sights and sounds in your immediate environment. Eventually you will create a habit of practicing mindfulness every time you check your email or receive a new email notification!   

As an alternative, select one repetitive behavior that occurs throughout your day. For example, you might select something such as taking a drink of water or sitting down. Practice using one of these behaviors as a reminder or cue to practice mindfulness. Eventually you will create a habit of practicing mindfulness by recapturing your present moment awareness every time you sit down on your couch or in your office chair.  

Whether a behavior or task, try finding a reminder or a cue that is most useful to you and can easily be incorporated on a daily basis. You might try several different behaviors or tasks when getting started. Once you find what works for you, practice and keep track of your success so that you can reinforce your new mindfulness habit.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Letting Go

Buddhist psychology teaches us that the source of happiness and unhappiness lies nowhere else but in our own minds and hearts.  From this perspective, we can strive, accomplish, and accumulate great wealth, yet we will always return back to ourselves, back to our own minds and hearts.  

One way we can work to develop a greater sense of contentment involves cultivating a greater sense of inner peace with ourselves.  A helpful way to cultivate this sense of peace involves the practice of letting go.  

Here are a few strategies to practice letting go:

Practice noticing and letting go of the tension you feel in your body.  Tension often goes unnoticed.  Take a moment to breath and relax the areas of your body that are most tense.

Practice letting go of unnecessary rules or demands.  We often create a list of personal rules and take on the rules dictated by society.  Take a moment to consider if these rules are really necessary.  

Practice forgiveness towards yourself and others when you feel it is appropriate.  Forgiveness can lead to a sense of freedom and allows us to avoid building up resentment towards others.  

Practice focusing on the present moment and ask yourself what else is really needed.  Take a moment to acknowledge how your basic needs are being met.   

Practice gratitude by focusing on what you have and the people you are grateful to have in your life.  

We all carry our story with us.  Consider how you carry your story into your day.  What are the most frequent thoughts and fears seeking your attention?  How often do you worry about what others think?  Are you struggling with a recent conversation that brought you distress?  How much energy do you invest in external accomplishments?  What do you desire most and why? How strong is the grasp you hold on the things outside of yourself? Ask yourself if you can let go of any of these things.

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Simplicity

It is easy to get distracted by the many things in our lives. Our society tells us that we must be active and striving to gain and make progress at all times. Even our vacations can become a next best list of achievements. These messages penetrate all levels of our culture as we see children pressured to excel and adults struggle to sit idle for even a brief moment as their minds quickly identify the next thing they can accomplish in their day.  

We tend to feel great when things are going well. To be sure, it is important to appreciate our efforts and connect with a sense of pride. We may also feel great when we achieve a raise, buy a new car, rent a new downtown apartment, or complete an addition on our home. Again, it is not wrong to appreciate what we gain.

The problem with this formula relates to the sources of our happiness and sense of worth. The items on this list are external sources of satisfaction. As such, they provide a temporary satisfaction and a fleeting contentment. There is always something else waiting outside of our grasp. Furthermore, an eternal list of achievements can leave us in a state of anxiety as we hold tight and fear losses or setbacks. When our minds and hearts are connected to these powerful external forces, it is difficult to find a stable and lasting sense of contentment or peace in our lives. 

How do we achieve a stable and lasting sense of contentment? This is an important question to ask ourselves. One path toward contentment involves practicing simplicity. In doing so we practice letting go of our attachments to external sources of happiness. This can be incredibly difficult, but it presents an opportunity to begin to broaden our sense of freedom and begin to loosen our grasp on the many external things that can hold us hostage. Ask yourself:

Where might I find simplicity in my life?

What is truly most important?

What is truly lacking in this moment?

Our tendency to grasp external things and accomplishments is not a criticism, nor does this suggest a personal or moral failing. It is simply an invitation to consider the ways you are striving or grasping external things and how you might shift your perspective to gain a greater sense of inner peace and freedom. Throughout the coming days you might try taking a pause when you begin to feel distressed or anxious. Ask yourself what is needed in order to let go and find greater peace.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Acceptance

“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.” – Tara Brach                                                                                                    

Acceptance has become an increasingly important concept for building resilience and maintaining mental wellness. Although it has a long history in spiritual practices, acceptance has more recently become a cornerstone for mindfulness practice as well as therapy approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  

Acceptance involves recognizing a process or condition without attempting to change it or protest against it. It means that we can see our own experiences clearly and also let whatever we see be what it is without pushing it away. This is much different from fighting against our experience or judging our experience as good or bad. It is also much different from avoidance or neglecting our responsibility to take care of ourselves or others.  

Acceptance is a powerful way to cope with suffering. Perhaps the best example can be seen in the role of acceptance for coping with anxiety. If you practice being more accepting of your anxious feelings and thoughts, you will notice that they become less distressing and gradually diminish. 

A concrete way to shift toward a more accepting stance involves a shift in our thinking. For example, rather than thinking, “I need to fight off this anxiety,” focus instead on thoughts such as, “I am aware of feeling anxious, but I have been here before and I know it will pass.” 

Overall, it takes both trust and patience to develop an accepting stance toward our suffering. Therefore, it is perhaps most helpful to think of this approach as a practice that you can work on daily as you shift your relationship to the various forms of suffering or distress in your life.   

These two steps are helpful for practicing acceptance:

First, notice your discomfort. Take a few deep breaths and pause for a moment. You may even comment to yourself on your discomfort as you identify and observe your experience. Keep this part simple as you practice observing the process around your distress. You may reflect to yourself, “ I’m starting to overthink this,” or “I’m starting to get myself worked up and I’m feeling more and more tense and anxious.”  

Second, accept your discomfort. Using self-compassion, remind yourself that your distress is understandable. For example, it is natural to feel anxious when we experience a threat. Remind yourself that your thoughts are not facts and anxiety is a normal part of human experience.  Accepting anxiety or suffering into your life is like accepting that it might rain when you’re trying to throw an outdoor party. Rain happens and we can do little to change that. Yet, a rainstorm does not last forever. Rain is a normal weather event just as our emotions and periods of distress are normal human events.  

Although anxiety is a great example and a helpful place to start, acceptance can be applied to all forms of distress or suffering. As you work toward incorporating more acceptance into your life, practice speaking to yourself as if you were speaking to a best friend or family member. Remind yourself that emotions come and go. Remind yourself that all things are impermanent and always changing. Remind yourself that suffering is an inherent part of being human and you are not alone.  

As you work towards greater acceptance you may notice a greater sense of freedom. You may also notice a shift in the way you approach everyday challenges as you develop an expanded capacity to deal with problems as they arise.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Self-Love

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” — Buddha

The concept of self-love should not be confused with selfishness or being self-centered. It should also not be confused with simply buying things or getting a new hairstyle to feel more satisfied. Self-love is a sense of appreciation and admiration for oneself that grows stronger through self-acceptance and maturity. Much like self-compassion, self-love can lead us to take steps toward appreciating ourselves in a natural and healthy way.     

One major obstacle to self-love involves the conditions we set for ourselves. For example, we might find ourselves needing to accomplish a goal or obtain approval in order to feel positive about ourselves. In practicing self-love, we can aspire to feel this same sense of self-appreciation, even in the absence of a concrete condition or achievement. We can strive to love ourselves unconditionally, just as we love our children or a beloved pet.  

An important step towards self-love is to improve or change our self-talk. If we turn up the volume on our thoughts, we might notice how we speak to ourselves. It is not uncommon to find that your self-talk is critical or negative. We are often harsh critics of ourselves and may readily judge and condemn our actions or even our feelings. Consider how you might speak to a close friend, loved one, or child who experienced a failure or disappointment and practice talking to yourself in this same manner.  

Another helpful practice involves taking action to address your deeper needs, rather than focusing on what you think you want or what might feel good in the moment. This may take some self-reflection. Take a moment and consider what helps you stay strong and centered.  Ultimately, acting on these needs will likely serve you better in the long-term. 

Self-love can also be expanded by practicing forgiveness. Learning to accept your imperfections and view mistakes as part of growth can shift you away from self-criticism. Practice being less harsh on yourself when you make a mistake and take time to appreciate your achievements and resilience. 

Lastly, we can take a small, yet powerful step towards greater self-love through affirmations or personal mantras. In repeating a short phrase to ourselves we are consciously and unconsciously sending ourselves a message of self-love. You might practice repeating a specific phrase, such as “I am good and worthy of love,” or “I am enough.”  You could extend this further to practice phrases such as “May I experience peace and steadfastness,” “May I embrace today’s challenges with stillness and calm,” or “May my home be a home of balance and spaciousness.” 

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Coping with Election Stress

According to a new survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of U.S. adults (56%) identify the 2020 presidential election as a significant stressor, an increase from the 52% of adults who reported the presidential election as a significant source of stress when asked in the months leading up to the 2016 contest.  In addition, more than three-quarters of Americans (77%) endorse the future of our nation as a significant source of stress, up from 66% in 2019, according to a Harris Poll conducted for the APA.  

Election stress is clearly a significant challenge to maintaining mental health and overall well-being. The 2020 election is also taking place amidst a worldwide pandemic, which has lasted for more than six months. Facing the election with these additional burdens has only served to reinforce our collective burnout and uncertainty about the future.  

It is important to consider how you are coping and take time to reconsider the ways you take care of yourself and your loved ones. This may not come as a surprise, but setting stricter boundaries is probably the best place to start. 

First, it is wise to set boundaries around your consumption of news and social media. It is natural to feel drawn to the news media as we look for updates and guidance. We may also be unknowingly searching for a sense of control that is ultimately out of reach, only to find ourselves faced with further uncertainty, fear, anger or a sense of hopelessness. All of this contributes to further stress, which can be partially reduced by limiting our exposure.  

Second, it can be helpful to set boundaries around relationships with others that you might experience as difficult or even harmful. A respectful discussion of differences in opinion can be a positive experience, but when these interactions become disrespectful or infused with anger or offensive language, it is best to limit your involvement. If this is the case with loved ones, it would be good to express your need for a break or request that politics be discussed when you are not present. You might also seek out positive relationships with others who share your views or just enjoy spending time discussing or relating around other topics.  

In addition to boundaries, an ongoing self-care routine that involves healthy eating, adequate sleep, and time to relax and engage in positive or enjoyable activities is a must for combatting stress and burnout. Likewise, you can take more small breaks or micro-mindfulness moments to focus on your breath and ground yourself. Additional skills such as emotional regulation and reappraisal strategies, such as re-framing, can also be helpful. In some cases, you might even consider some form of political or social advocacy or volunteering, which could help you experience a sense of control and connection to the community.

There is also always the option of seeking professional support for yourself or a loved one. In addition to the dedicated space to process your concerns and experience empathy and support, a professional can assist you in exploring ways of mitigating your stress and adapting new strategies to address intrusive thoughts and worry or identifying unhelpful coping behaviors, such as excessive alcohol use, over-eating, and other impulsive or avoidant behaviors. Lastly, can you take a minute to further review the tips on addressing burnout in our blog from last week.   

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Burnout

We all deal with stress on a daily basis. However, when stress becomes prolonged, we can begin to experience emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. This state of exhaustion is referred to as burnout. At some point we cannot continue to cope effectively with the high level of sustained stress, and we begin to experience symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, difficultly sleeping, fatigue, loss of motivation, pessimism, emptiness, self-doubt and an overall lack of meaning. As this persists, we may start to neglect our needs and experience a desire to escape and avoid, which ultimately contributes to feeling more and more isolated and hopeless. If any of this sounds familiar, you are likely experiencing burnout.  

Coping with burnout involves reducing the constant drain on your emotional resources by learning to move through the stress cycle and conserve your resources, while also working to replenish your reserves. When in the midst of ongoing stress, it is important to work on reducing the burden on your resources through self-care and regular breaks. Later, it is equally important to continue attending to our needs after the stressful event or circumstances have passed, which is often when we are in the most need of support. In this way we can work on moving through the stress cycle by allowing ourselves to recover and prepare for future stressors.      

Emotional exhaustion is a key component of burnout. Therefore, emotional awareness is an essential part of working to reduce stress. This often starts with labeling and accepting what you are feeling, rather than avoiding or ignoring it. It is also helpful to recognize that emotions require patience and cannot be abruptly changed or avoided.  

The metaphor of a tunnel has been used to describe the process of moving through an emotion in order to see the light at the end. When we get stuck in the middle of the tunnel for an extended period of time we begin to experience burnout. Labeling, accepting, and expressing our feelings to others helps us continue to move through the tunnel and arrive at the light.    

Physical and mental exhaustion also play a significant role in burnout. Here, taking a break and finding a release are helpful coping strategies. This might take the form of a midday walk or other exercise, during which time you can intentionally direct your attention away from the sources of stress in your life. You might even try taking interesting or meditative pictures on your walk. It may also include things such as developing a regular meditation practice. Finally, it is essential to get adequate sleep, eat healthy foods, and stay well-hydrated.

Several additional strategies can be helpful for reducing the burden of constant stress:  

Creating boundaries around your work or academic demands can be helpful for reducing mental and physical exhaustion. For example, you might set a timer and only work within that boundary, after which time you can plan a period of rest.  

It is also helpful to communicate and connect with others to get support and to enjoy the benefits of connection. Social connection can also help us to feel less alone in our stress and burnout, particularly when the source of stress is common, such as the additional demands and restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Both giving and receiving support can go a long way in helping us cope.  

Burnout can take a major toll on our motivation and sense of purpose. Therefore, it can be extremely helpful to reconnect with a sense of meaning. Try taking a step back and looking broadly at your current circumstances. Take a moment to find one or more things or people you feel good about and connect with a sense of gratitude for the things that are going well, despite the many challenges you may continue to face. Consider your long-term goals and connect with a greater purpose in your life. Lastly, take a moment to acknowledge the ways you have already been resilient in coping with prolonged stress. 

Burnout is not a label for lack of effort or commitment, nor does it suggest any personal or moral failure. Yet, it should also not be worn as a badge of honor. It simply means you have been stuck in a tunnel of relentless stress and you have reached a point when taking some steps to address your physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion will be important for your continued well-being.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Coping with Feelings

“Feelings are just visitors, let them come and go.”

                                                                        -Mooji 

We are always experiencing feelings. Sometimes feelings can be overwhelming and difficult to manage. When this is the case, try to remind yourself of the following tips:

Feeling are not facts

Feelings come and go when we let them

Feelings are not a label 

Feelings are meant to be felt

Feeling often have something to teach us

Feeling hold information

Feelings are not permanent

Emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger are a basic part of life and sometimes we struggle with how to deal with them effectively. It can be tempting to act on what we are feeling, but that often doesn’t fix the situation that caused the emotions. It is often most helpful to practice pausing. Bring your attention to your breath. Check-in with your body to learn more about why you might be feeling a certain way and notice how your body feels. Do you feel tense or anxious? Take a moment to bring your awareness to your surroundings and notice the environment around you. Recall some of the tips described above and remind yourself of the bigger picture.

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Our Primary Psychological Concerns

As human beings, we are all faced with three primary psychological concerns based on the following three facts. First, we come into the world in a highly vulnerable state and must survive through a long period of dependency. Second, we have evolved a highly attuned and intense set of emotional responses to help us react to threats and cope with critical challenges. Third, we are social animals with a high level of inter-dependency and a long evolutionary history of social connection.  

These basic facts about the nature of human beings lead to three primary psychological concerns discussed by Joseph Burgo Ph.D. (2012). Primary to these concerns is the impact of our early childhood experiences with primary caregivers.  

First, we all must navigate issues of dependency. If our needs for safety and security were not met during this early childhood period, we may continue to struggle into adulthood with issues of trust. This is typically most challenging in our relationships as we may struggle to depend on others or fear abandonment and subsequent emotional pain.  

Second, we all must manage our feelings. If our caregivers were unavailable to help us manage our feelings and provide needed soothing experiences for us to learn and internalize, we may continue to struggle to manage our feelings as adults. A small challenge can quickly evolve into a full-blown crisis or abrupt and uncontrolled reactions for people who struggle in this area.  

Third, we all need to find a place in the world and feel that we belong. As an extension, we need to experience a sense of worth and validation from being part of a social community. If we were not provided with adequate opportunities for belonging as well as a sense of value and worth during our childhood, we may continue to struggle with issues of belonging as well as low self-esteem or feelings of shame.  

Of course, there is typically more to the story when we consider the role of dispositional traits or other important resources during periods of development. Nevertheless, these early experiences have an impact on all of us. The following questions can help you identify which of the three primary concerns are most relevant to you and highlight areas that might be useful to address in therapy: 

Relationships

Consider the ways that you manage difficulties in relationships with others. Do you struggle with feedback from others or rush to judgement? Do you struggle with trusting others? Do you feel the need to do everything yourself? Do you ever feel that needing support is weak?  

Emotions

Think about how you handle difficult emotions. Do you behave impulsively in an attempt to avoid feelings? Do you deny or do you find yourself feeling nothing at all in situations that would likely provoke an emotional response for most people? Do certain emotions make you uneasy? How do you react when others are upset or express anger?  

Belonging & Self-esteem 

Consider how you manage threats to your self-esteem. Do you find yourself striving for attention or admiration from others? Do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake or feel beneath others? Do you strive to present yourself as a nice or agreeable person?  

Take a moment to reflect on these questions and consider which of these primary concerns are most relevant in your life. 

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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