Why Motivation is Problematic

Does motivation precede action or does motivation build after actually doing something?  The question is valid, but it’s also false. Why? It’s too simplistic.

We all do things each and every day that we don’t want to do, but we do it anyways. On some days, this includes getting out of our pajamas…  but when it comes to the things we need to do to get to the bigger goals in our lives, the things that are meaningful to us, people talk a lot about not being able to gather the motivation to do it. Given that a person is in reasonable health, and actually has the ability to do the things they are trying to do then the it generally boils down to one of two issues; 1., they don’t really want it, and 2., they don’t think they can do it.

I talk a lot about the first block, with my clients and in public speaking or blogging content because I see it all the time and it is a really hard message for people to get. A lot of people set goals and ambitions based on what they think they should want, what their parents or partner wants, or what society has blatantly promoted as their way to happiness. These can be macro goals like going to university, choosing a specific career, or their relationship status. Assumed goals can also be more micro like being organized, thin, or what to look like.  These false assumptions even corrupt how we think about introversion, personality, and how quickly we talk (seriously, it’s true).  So, people set off on fitness goals, try to be ‘more organized, better students, learn how to find happiness in relationships, and yet never actually manage to take the steps to get there in any consistent way. It’s hard to push yourself to study the needed hours to ace the exam if you don’t really buy into the idea of University. This is one I see all the time. Parents tell me they want support to help their teens be better students and not be lazy, but the kid tells me that they have never wanted to go to University because they want to be an artist or take a less traditional occupational path but they are afraid to tell their parents.  I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t encourage their kids to work hard, and I am not against University or nontraditional paths. What I am saying is that it’s not a motivation issue, if you never really bought into the goal in the first place.

The other reason that people do not engage in the goals that they set for themselves? They don’t believe they will be successful. This is a self-confidence and esteem issue, and it is incredibly sad. Maybe it is lack of confidence because they were never given permission to disagree or fail. It may be that being given participation awards and trophies for 18thplace has undermined their ability to tolerate failure and disconnected perseverance and hard work from their success equation. Other times lack of self-belief is a result of very difficult pieces of a person’s origin story including; trauma, enduring hardship, health issues, mental health diagnosis, physical and mental health challenges, or learning / neurological differences. I have a very real and deep compassion for anyone who is struggling to engage in their life with their own goals because of esteem. Building yourself up so that you can get out of your own way is very, very difficult, but it is possible. I wish everyone in this camp could access excellent mental health support.

It you have goals that you know you want to achieve, truly (take a long and sober look at this), AND you have the confidence to accept failure on the way, but you are still not engaged? Then you have to wrap your head around the following idea; motivation often follows action. Let me back up, FIRST, you don’t have to want to do something to do it, THEN,  motivation follows action. I don’t have to want to get to work early in the morning so that I am better positioned for the promotion, I just have to do it. After a few weeks of doing it I will probably get a comment here or there ‘nice job’ or ‘noticed your dedication’, which will provide positive reward and a little surge of dopamine in my brain to help seal the deal. Then, I will be more likely to continue getting to work because I am seeing small gains and getting used to the routine and then before you know it I actually want to be there early.

I should make a quick point also that this is where passion comes in. You’ll notice that I said most of us do things every day that we don’t necessarily want to do. Well, I have built my life around doing as little of that as possible. I did this by pursuing things that I am absolutely passionate about. I don’t have to convince myself to go to the clinic, take an extra call, or work on content for The Practice Calgary because I am passionate about it.  I thrive on clinical work, see a vision for The Practice, and find the entrepreneurial challenge enticing. We’ve grown from sole practitioner to a team of seven in as many years and just had our largest client service month to date.  I love this and so motivation is never a challenge here. Discouragement, only temporarily. Exhaustion, sure on days. But never, ever a motivation issue because I am passionate about it.

Figure out if what you think you want is what you want, identify your blocks to believing in yourself, and find your passion. Motivation or action first depends entirely on the context.

 

Best,

 

Carmen Dodsworth, R. Psyc

Founder & Clinical Director, The Practice Calgary

www.thepracticecalgary.com

403.472.5862

 

You’ve got to start thinking of your mental health provider as a salesperson. Here’s why.

If you are a consumer of mental health services (which most of us should be), then you should think of your provider as providing a consumer-based product.  The reason that this is critically important is that it puts you in the customer mind-set, which immediately makes you more likely to speak-up when something isn’t working for you, or advocate until your needs are being met. People don’t necessarily like that, but it Is true. I’m not suggesting that you start bombarding your doctors or therapists with needs for immediate attention or threaten to withhold payment unless a demand is met, but you should be making sure that the service provider is meeting their end of the bargain.

But many people don’t. They return to therapists or mental health services that do not meet their needs, or do not deliver the service in a way that they can digest. And yet they return time and time again. This is a serious problem for me, a psychologist and clinical director of The Practice Calgary, and genuinely caring human, because it undermines mental health services everywhere. The number of times I have heard someone say that they went to a therapist and it was unproductive or unhelpful or weird, is staggering, but what is more astonishing is the overwhelming response when I ask the person what they did in that situation to get the better services…” nothing”, or “stopped going”. There are two problems here; 1. they now don’t believe in mental health services, and 2. they did not get the help they need. I am not sure which is the larger issue – perhaps it’s an issue of scale.

I am not afraid to issue both criticism and deep respect for the profession I make a home in. I am deeply humbled to be amongst colleagues who have endless appetites for understanding their human behavior in such an intense way that they believe they will somehow break through a vortex and emerge on the other side with a new and profoundly different approach or understanding of our species. I am also aware that as a profession we have a reputation of being either weird or broken. I understand that. However, if you do
not think your therapist and you live on the same planet, then how likely is it that you are going to take their advice? Seriously, think about it. People are more influenced by others who are relatable to them, and they like and feel liked by. I do not agree that a therapist needs to be removed to be objective. In fact, I believe that so much of the positive results I have seen with clients has linked back to a fairly basic start. I get it, and I care. And it’s not hard to find see what I am into or where my energy is going. I am on social media daily, I post, I blog, and I include real photos of my life. If that does not do it, then you’ll have a pretty good sense of who I am after a few minutes of talking to me, and that should be enough for you to have a bit of an inclination as to whether or not we’d work well together. The same goes for every clinician on our team.

Board, board, and Wilson

OK, this is not going to fit everyone. Some clients do want the medical-model approach. I respect that, but I am far less inclined to offer it. I can, but it is not my favorite. Some of the best experiences I have had since opening The Practice Calgary have been demanding and vocal clients, who have asked more of me, I have delivered, and they have been equally as vocal with their thanks.

This is not a blog about me being the greatest therapist. This is a blog about giving you encouragement and permission to expect more from your provider. Need notes after sessions? Great, ask for it. Need different service delivery? Great, ask for it. Need to include your dog in the session because can’t leave him alone but also need your mental health support? Great, ask for it (true story, shout out to my dog buddy N… you know who you are). Your provider is allowed to say no, but there may be a bigger conversation, a compromise, or another provider for you.

Why does this matter? Because I care deeply about my profession and hold accessible and effective mental health highly. I am a sales person. I think constantly about our consumers, meeting their needs, and going above and beyond what people expect from a provider. I value greatly the trust, time, and financial obligation of seeking out a therapist. Our team works as a team, which means that we understand that because of personality, history, demeanor
and an entirely different list of reasons (I was once declined by a client because I have a nose ring) you may not fit with

Just waiting for ‘his’ reply

your therapist. No one person is a good fit for everyone. That is why we encourage people to be verbal, tell us you love our energy but not your therapist and let us match you better. It is why we have a client care manager who follow clients from start to end to check-in with clients periodically through service to understand their experience. It’s also why right now we have “Letters to Santa” station in the waiting room for siblings (and I guarantee you I will be hand-writing replies in about 3 weeks). Service delivery and genuine caring.

 

Best,

Carmen

 

Ever feel like positive intentions aren’t enough?

Today is a grind, and although I really do believe in positive intentions and focusing on good stories in my life there are times where that seems too far away. Since Thursday I have been driving nonstop, to work, volleyball tournaments, shopping, and home. It has felt like I have lived in my car, and only used my house for 8-hour stop overs in between. I am under-slept, under-exercised, and under-laughed. I added fuel to the fire by seriously eating garbage all weekend. Now I have stopped, the kids are at their work, Geoff is away for work, and now it is me and a houseful of unmet responsibilities staring each other down. I’m looking over at Wilson, and he’s giving me that look. He know’s I know better. Now I’ve got to dig out of this deflated state and stop this from becoming a downward spiral. 

First things first, throw away the clock. I tend to stare at the clock on days like today, and constantly think about how quickly my down time is slipping by.  And it’s natural for people to make everything around them seem more important than it is when they are feeling down or under pressure. This adds an unneeded sense of urgency to the day, and overall breeds discontent. I end up rehearsing everything that I have to do today, which rents a lot of space in my brain and leaves very little to even notice let alone feel grateful for the things that I appreciate. There are things that would be good to get to, but realistically what I ‘need’ is oxygen, water, and usually food (although after this weekend the latter is debatable). The rest of the things on the list may be important, but they are not urgent and my life will go on fine if I don’t get to them. People need to focus more on the quality of what they are doing (whether it is the quality of the task or the quality of the life experience while the task is being done) and less on what they think about the task or what is next. It is your life and it is made up of small moments, so if I were to turn to day around it would mean that I was fully in the moment rather in my complaint or list of what was next.

Re-focus. Look big picture. Although executing today will require me to sit and look at the small picture to work out of a slump (that’s coming next), the big picture perspective can help. In the big picture, I want to build a community are The Practice Calgary, have a loving and fun home environment, serve the people I interact with by giving my best in each moment, and take care of myself in a way that facilitates me fully being in and enjoying my life. When I remember these things then I can see that being rundown today does not stop me. It does, however, mean that addressing my fatigue becomes my first point of focus because I understand that all of the other goals I have rest on how I am doing. I know that I won’t get to 100% today, but I right now I feel way, way too close to the bottom of that scale to manage for more than a day. It is my responsibility to do something about it.

When I hit a wall I generally coach myself to take the next step, and then the one after that. Whether very low, or overwhelmed the best place to start is the single step. Make it simple and think about a 1 – 10 scale, 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest (think vacation, receiving gifts, winning the lottery) and put yourself, right now on the scale. Then just think about what you have to do to move up or down the scale. I always include the down, because too much focus is on the up and it is important that we realize that we play a part in pushing ourselves further down too.  So if I choose to eat junk, go back to bed, or binge on my favorite shows I am sure I’ll go to bed tonight feeling at least as rough.  If I try to eat something that is close to green, exercise, or at the very least get out of my pajamas (keeping it real here), then I am more likely to turn it around. If I really want to try to dig out then I can do some laundry (accomplishing simple tasks helps with feelings of overwhelm) or get to some of The Practice Calgary work that is sitting the corner of the room beside the vacuum waiting for me to notice it.  Scale it. Once you take one or two steps to move you in the direction you want to go, you’ll probably be at a different number and can continue on the trend. Even if you don’t make it to a 7, you can at least not hit a 1. Also, managing it this way can open up our minds to tomorrow being OK, waking up in a better place, and helps us not allow the snowball of a down day to start an avalanche.

Do these things really matter? Can you actually make a difference in your life by doing the laundry, or making a point of working out? Yes, every time.  Long term success, change, or wellbeing (whatever your focus is)  occurs when you figure out the minutia of what you need to do daily, and then commit to do it.

Best,

Carmen Dodsworth

No, its not your OCD; probably

Language matters. The words you choose to use to talk to yourself have a profound impact on your beliefs and actions. Words spoken out loud have the power to shape thoughts, beliefs, and public discourse. They also have the power to perpetuate stereotypes or put the light of day on discrimination.

“It’s my OCD” is one of the least favorite things I hear people say. For people living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, daily life can be an excruciating challenge. An extraordinary amount of personal energy can be expended to push back intrusive thoughts, and stave off the compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. The thoughts are not intentional, they are often not logical, they are not controllable, and they cause significant distress. To make matters even more exasperating, people with OCD are often very aware that their thoughts are not rational, and yet they are undeniably afraid. Having thoughts that you did not plan on having, thoughts that are appalling to you, that you do not want to think, brings about an intense loss of control. The lack of control, coupled with fear from the intrusive thought, drive a need to do something to regain control, and this is a perfect breeding ground for compulsivity. The behavior lessens the panic, and it is often the only thing that will initially bring about the much-needed sense of relief. However, the intrusion and anxiety return, and thus the behavior must be repeated. As the intrusive thoughts persist and breed, the behaviors continue and expand, and the association between relief and compulsions grows stronger. I have seen people’s lives shrink to fractions of what they once were due to the hours on hours spent enslaved to ritualistic and compulsive behavior. I have seen families fractured because the illness holds a loved one captive, and forbids
them from touching, hugging, kissing their own child, sibling, or spouse. I have watched kids lose friends, drop activities, and live in absolute shame often terrified to allow their parents in to their thoughts for fear that they will be unlovable. I have been witness to the excruciating pain and embarrassment that people feel as they watch their lives fall apart at the end of their own behavior. I have heard the number of times individuals have tested others, shared even the most minuscule detail of their anxiety as a test of others, only to hear ‘don’t worry’, a confirmatory piece of evidence to remind them of how ridiculous their behavior is. So, when I hear anyone flippantly state that ‘their’ OCD is making them clean, with a chortle, I cringe. Not only does it make light of a serious mental wellness issue, these statements also kind of make fun of people facing OCD.

OCD is not the only one that is thrown around. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is another common ground for misguided fodder. ADHD is a serious neurological condition that can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to regulate their attention, focus, organization, and overall consistency in life. ADHD is not laziness, and it is extremely frustrating for people with the condition. People who have ADHD often miss social cues, make comments they didn’t mean to make (or would not have made if they had a chance to stop the thought, and find it excruciating to try and hold their attention on something that is not of high interest. Once something is enticing enough to cue the attention centers of their brains to focus, it then becomes extremely hard for them to stop focusing.

Silhouette of a child. Back to school. Doodle image. Stock Vector illustration.

In reality, ADHD is about a significant impairment in the regulation of attention, so the common misperception that a kid who can play guitar for hours because they love it is therefore only choosing not to focus on school, is wrong. And it is damaging. The people I have worked with who are diagnosed with ADHD often carry a sense of shame about it. At our core, most of us want to belong and being different is not generally embraced. And that is what is so hard to see because ADHD also brings with it creativity, energy, an ability to multi-task that far exceeds most. It is also associated with high intelligence and a wonderful ability to approach problems from a unique perspective. However, it takes a long time for people to see ADHD as a possible strength, and it takes even longer to undue the negative stereotypes perpetuated by flippant remarks. I was at a junior high school function last year where one teacher started goofing off and acting obviously over the top as he gave out awards to the students, the principal of the school replied, “time to wrap up, his ADHD meds are wearing off”. My heart sank. I actually had to hold back tears because I know all too well that the gymnasium was populated by many beautiful teens and parents who have to deal with the reality of ADHD every day. Even writing this makes me feel upset.

You can’t see mental health. You have no idea what the person next to you has overcome and what people in ear shot of your remarks have had to face. We’ve grown-up a lot as a society. I hope that we have all progressed from jokes about mental retardation, sexual orientation, and equality. Let’s challenge ourselves to do better. Try saying, “I like a clean table” when you stack dishes for the server in place of “it’s my OCD”. Try “I don’t know why I said that” instead of “I’m so ADHD”. Try asking someone about ADHD if they tell you they have it. Think about remarking “I heard that people with ADHD are known creativity and giftedness”, or “wow, I can’t believe how many projects you have on the go, I can’t switch my focus like that!” Don’t minimize anxiety by telling an anxious person “it’s going to be fine” or “stop worrying”; believe me if it were an option they would have. Try instead to ask, “how can I help” or “what do you need from me”? It’s a small shift, which to me means that it is manageable and likely repeatable. Change the way we talk, and it will change the way we think. Softly and gently we can change.

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard” Lao Tzu

Carmen Dodsworth, BSc., MA.
Registered Psychologist

Goal setting

Now it is time to pull this together. We have spent time tracking where you actually are and looking at what you have valued the most in your life. The next step is to line them up, and see what you get.


Take out another piece of paper, and draw a circle that you can divide like a pie, to represent where your time is allocated (yes, it is actually a pie chart). Roughly estimate which of the activities you identified are allocated the most of your day to day life, and therefore should take up a larger portion of the pie. The reason it is best to do this after a week or two of tracking is that, as per my previous blogs, most of us are all too willing to lie to ourselves about how we live our life. So, look at the data and translate it to a chart. When I looked at mine, I saw a great deal of time spent driving as a result of living in a rural setting but having school and work in two different urban areas. I also see that I spend a fair amount of time doing absolutely nothing with my family. I mean, just sitting and being in the same room. I am not clear as to how that started because I wouldn’t have guessed I have room for that, but as it turns out I do. As many of you do, I also spend a lot of time at work, which for me means providing therapy and consultation, supporting the clinical team, and developing The Practice Calgary in terms of client care and community engagement. Outside of the clinic I scour research as a final stage of my PhD, read health studies to use in social media engagement (I am passionate about informed practice), and read for pleasure (yes, mostly related to wellness… I know what I know). And then there is exercise, cooking, sporting adventures, and friends. Then of course, there are the things I will just throw in the “I don’t even know why I am doing this” category, such as reading the news repeatedly, all idle social media viewing, and …. Endless list ensues.

Take this pie chart and look at it through the lens of what you value. Does it line up? Are the things you value clearly shown in the way you spend your time? Find ways to anchor goals to the things you value, so that you are more likely to stay with them. Stop and make sure the goals you have are in-line with things you truly value. I have realized that for me, fitness goals need to be anchored to an activity and to community. What that means is that I bring my kids in to work out with me in the morning, and I specifically choose to train in ways that will improve my snowboarding or wakeboarding, or take running to the next level in terms of distance or time. I have signed up for a half marathon in September and set a goal of getting a personal best. This will drive my commitment to training. When I look at expression and creativity which are values of mine, I can set goals of spending more consistent time writing or painting. I have no interest in publically displaying my painting, so I can focus my energy on time spent rather than achievement. However, writing and speaking (value: influence) also should be expressed in order for me to feel deeply satisfied, so I am mindful to set up speaking engagements, and have set a goal around presenting my dissertation research in 2018.

The second piece to consider is how you will define the metric or measurement of success. If your goal is weight loss, you need to measure success by something that will reinforce you along the way. You could focus on days in a row at the gym, avoiding added sugar, or reducing portion, which will all lead to the ultimate goal of weight loss. Tracking the actual weight loss will help you adjust your plan, but will not be enough to keep most of us going for the long haul. The metrics of success I am using for my running are the number of times I do cardio a week, and if I am able to push myself in duration or intensity (time, hills, speed). The metric for presenting the dissertation research, is making sure that I am working on the research at least two days a week. Keep track of these metrics so that you can gain momentum.

Pick goals that are likely to make the most impact in your level of satisfaction in life, ones that are easy to accomplish and ones that are going to be more of a grind. Try not to pick too many or else each one will likely lose charge. Pick what is fun, pick what is meaningful, and focus on the steps along the way.

Carmen Dodsworth, BSc., MA.
Registered Psychologist

Where Am I Going?

Last blog I encouraged people to take time to figure out where they actually are, not where they want to believe they are. So, if you have joined in and are indeed tracking your time, then keep at it, because next blog we will put the data to good use. I can already say that I’ve seen a few surprises in how I spend my time and have become quite convinced that nothing good comes from the amount of news I read. It is actually kind of ironic that I do it, because I generally loathe talking about the news and often tell clients of mine to be careful of how they interact with news stories. Still, I am just keeping track and raising my own awareness of where I actually am before I make knee-jerk changes that tend to be fleeting. In addition to media use, I am noticing habits in my daily life, people I interact most with, and am becoming aware again of things I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about. All of this by just tracking myself for a couple of weeks. It is not too late to start if you want to make meaningful changes in 2018….

OK, so that is the exercise of ‘where’ I am, now before I jump on any particular change-train, I need to consider where I am going. As a clinician, I can honestly say that one of the most commonly missed steps in goal setting is taking the time to figure out what you want and why. Given that the world we live in today is fairly instant, stopping to think deeply about something we do is somewhat passé. But if you don’t figure this out then you may end up with goals that aren’t meaningful to you, or going about achieving them in ways that are not motivating to you.

Here’s an example from my own life to drive this point home. I don’t exercise because of a deep interest in health, I actually exercise because I have made it about belonging and adventure. When I tie weight exercises with snowboarding, it is very easy for me to get myself to the gym. Similarly, when I included my kids in the 6 a.m. sweat fest it became about something so much more important to me than weight loss or health, it became about belonging in our family. The kicker is that when my community and belonging needs are satiated, as they were over the holiday or in the summer when we have an endless roster of guests gathering with us for long lazy days, then my commitment and resolve for the gym vaporizes
quickly. It also means that for me, if I want to achieve a specific fitness goal, it would be extremely helpful to tie it to something other than fitness. Hence, why immediately after writing this blog I enlisted the interest of family to run a half-marathon in September. It is also one reason why I rally The Practice Calgary team to participate in the Scotia Bank Marathon as a fundraising effort in May of most years (I was lucky enough to be abroad last May so I did miss it).
Of course, I believe in fundraising and fitness, however if I am completely honest I gain a lot more out of the motivation of a specific adventure and my spirit in absolutely filled by the experience of coming together with others and connecting to the broader community of Calgary. Because I know this, I also know that weight loss goals on their own will generally not hold enough motivation to carry me through the lows. You may end up at the same place as someone else, but your how and why may be different – and knowing that could be the difference between persistence and dropping out.

Obviously, you are now completely convinced that knowing you how and why are important, so how do you figure that out? Shockingly I am going to ask you to do some more self-reflection… There are a few different ways, and yes, the time tracking that we are already doing will help, but one of my favorite ways is to stop and think about your “Personal Highs”.

What moments in my personal and professional life am I most proud of?

What moments in my personal and professional life stand out to me as a time when I was Happiest?

Why? What stands out at you or what are you focused on in /about that moment?

Write out as many moments as you come to mind. Once these are written down do a quick internet search (I refuse to use “Google” as a verb… or “journal” for that matter), of “Personal Values”, and you should see roughly 30,000,000 results in about 0.51 seconds (search results stats add to the heap of ridiculous information out there). Pick a list, any list that you like. Then stand back, look at the moments, and see if you can group them together according to a core value from said list.

Here’s an example with my grouped events that came to mind, and the value(s) in bold.

My Personal High Moments

Acceptance into doctorate; opening my own business, research – Achievement and Challenge.

Residency, The Practice Calgary, Shuswap, dinner parties, marathon / half-marathon Carm-a-palooza (not the time to explain) – Belonging and Community

Travel, snowboarding, water skiing and boarding, marathon – Adventure

Writing, public speaking, blog, painting – Expression and Creativity, Influence

You may notice that I put some events in a couple of categories. I did this because it seemed right to me, it makes sense to me that some events hit on multiple values but if it doesn’t for you then don’t do that. I selected each category by looking closely at ‘why’ I am proud or happy in a specific memory. I am so proud of my doctorate education because the odds seemed insurmountable at one time. I had two kids, my own business which means a certain precarious nature to my income, and I had been out of school for a while. It was tough to put my name in the ring of potential applicants, to risk failure or to not have the stamina if I did get in. I am proud that I was accepted and that I have been successful in my endeavors. I am happy when I paint because I love the feeling of creating and seeing the end result (I really don’t need others to see it). I am happy when I am on the side of a mountain because I constantly think to myself how wild it is that I am on the side of a mountain with no real certainty what will happen next. The why helps me define my value.

One thing that was surprising to me is that some of the values that I would have said I have, prior to this exercise, didn’t come up at all. I would have expected; compassion& authenticity, fun & humor, openness, trustworthiness, and generosity to be critical to me. I have often said to people how much I value fun, but when I really look at it, I may have a lot fun but I value the adventure, challenge, and community and probably experience something as fun because those needs are being met. It makes sense then that putting fun as the driver to an event in the past has left me unsatisfied. Light bulb moment.

Take the time to explore values, see what surprises you, what is predictable, and keep tracking your time. Next blog we will pull this together with defining meaningful goals with the right motivators and useful metrics to help you get there!

Carmen Dodsworth, BSc., MA.
Registered Psychologist

Wait. Where am I?

I won’t start the new year writing about resolutions. There is way too much hype about resolutions right now. If you know me at all, you know that I thrive with one foot in the margins so anything too mainstream will be unappealing. Besides, there are far more productive ways to start a new year than to sit and think about all the ways you wish you and your life were different. And also, there is the reality that most new year’s resolutions don’t work.

Part of the issue is that we direct our attention in all the wrong places. We idealize our past and let that propel us to a version of the future that we believe will be better. It doesn’t really make too much sense though. Just because I used to run marathons or be a social butterfly, does not mean that either of those things fit me now. It also does not mean that I will be any happier if I have them in my life again. And I am not a failure if I don’t have them now, or am I? What if I look back and see a complete wreck? An under-active, difficult to complete any goal, isolated person. Does that mean that is the way my future will look? We put way too much emphasis on how we imagine it was and what that means. In doing so, we render the past far more important than the present.

We need to stop throwing our attention around like confetti at midnight (see what I did there?). It is OK to have an understanding of where you have come from, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that has to dictate where you are going. Instead, try being honest about where you are at right now. The person we are most comfortable lying to is ourselves, and that stops any change plan dead in its tracks. Years of providing therapy has made this point come across loud and clear. Many (read *most*), of us don’t feel we accept our situation, body, relationship, behavior, and so instead of really looking at it, we lie about it. When I ask a client to report on a behavior or pattern and then ask a friend or family member to give their account, there is almost always a meaningful discrepancy. You can guess that the error is on the side of the client reporting in their own favor. You could imagine that this is related to wanting to save face to me, a phenomenon called social desirability; however, the pattern repeats in teacher-student, parent-client, sibling-client, spouse-client, and even self-report verses written record. Yes, that’s right, what you will report in-person will often contradict what you yourself have documented as a written account of your own behavior.

So, in order to have any sense of goal setting, we need to start with an honest account of where we actually are. How on earth else would you know how to get to somewhere if you don’t know the starting point? Jump in a car with a tank of gas and say, ‘I’d like to go to California by tomorrow’, is that possible? Yes, if you are in Oregon, no if you are in New York. You also need to make sure that you have the gas and money (i.e. personal resources) to get there.

If there is one resolution I will endorse, it is this:  “I resolve to be honest and accepting of where I am right now!”  Then, once I have a solid sense of that, I can gently and with compassion start to look at where  I think I want to move towards, why that will be meaningful, and what I will use to measure my success. Here’s a place to start. Start this week and make a point of writing down your activity as a way to be accountable. How often do you really go to bed on time, act kindly towards your partner, eat in a way that is positive for your body? Where do you actually spend your time? Social media or reading? Television or talking with people around you? Don’t try to make yourself save face just be honest. Then, in the blogs to come we will start to look at what this tracking means, and how you can use it to honor your strengths, identify your core, and guide your goals for 2018.

I guess I did end up writing about resolutions after all… but in a way that didn’t let anyone set specific goals. That’s about right!

 

Carmen Dodsworth, BSc., MA.

Registered Psychologist

On Your Mark, Get Ready…….Slow Down!

What is your plan for the holiday season? What I actually mean is, how do you plan to survive? If you listen to the way many people talk about the holiday season, it can sound more like they are going into battle. We think in terms of everything we have to, should do, or must do, and often we complain about it. The thought of everything that we have to do is burdensome, make us feel powerless, and highlights the possibility of failure. When our perception is filtered in these ways we will experience stress. Unfortunately, even though we intuitively know that we are stressed, and that our perspective is a piece of that stress, most of us will do nothing about it – except charge full steam ahead.

The fight or flight response is the body’s adaptive response to a threatening situation and functions to help promote the survival of the organism. Physiological changes such as the release of stress hormones, digestive changes, and cognitive processing occur. These responses are experienced so that we are able to fight for our life or flee away from the stressor. But what about when you can’t just punch the Holiday in the nose, or run away completely? Then you can end up with chronic activation of your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which you have probably already guessed is not a good thing. Chronic elevation of stress responses is associated with sleep disturbance, short-term memory loss, autoimmune and cardiovascular disease, obesity, and increased abdominal fat. ( It’s not just the cookies and eggnog! ) Chronic stress can even result in changes to the circadian rhythms of our bodies (the system that regulates things like our sleep-wake cycle). When a parent’s system is elevated, they are also less consistent in parenting styles, make poorer health choices, and experience more behavioral challenges with their kids. So, the kicker is that as we become more stressed, our kids are more difficult to manage, we take less care of ourselves, and we behave badly. These secondary effects of stress add up quickly. Like the philosophical question of when does a collection of individual grains of sand become a pile of sand? When do the ‘to-dos’ of it all become too much? It’s a personal question.

If there is such a thing as one size fits all advice it is this… slow down!You don’t have to do it all. Actually, you really don’t have to and not in a colloquial way. The more you agree to the bake sale, the cards for 100 people you don’t actually know, the perfect décor, the extra side dishes, a few extra presents, the perfectly cleaned house – the more you are actually agreeing to being run down. The less room we leave for laughter, fun, peace, and connection with others. Stop right now and take out something to write on. Draw a circle, and then divide it up into pieces of pie. In each piece write the name of things you value, things that you think truly matter to you. Somethings can take up more than one piece. Activity outside, connection with family, rituals (think volunteering, specific meals, religious participation, outings) and on and on. Be specific so that the things that you identify are more real. Instead of saying ‘family’ think about what you value about the family, such as time together. Now flip the page over, draw another circle, and pieces of pie, now write out how you actually spend your time most holiday season. The discrepancy will give you a starting place for how to trim it down and take things off your to-do list. If you absolutely value spending time with family, but spend hours on hours decorating your house and writing out cards, then you are misguiding your energy. When our values and efforts don’t line up it means that we won’t be as likely to find our activity meaningful, which leads us up burnout mountain. When value and activity line up, then we often describe something called “flow”, which is timelessness. Of course, it will not line up perfectly, nor should it. The goal is not to live a completely self-serving holiday. It is about finding a balance. And my experience is that most of us, especially but not exclusively women, get this balance wrong. We are too geared to doing what we think will serve others, and on top of that have heard the message from many psychologist about the importance of self-care, so we try to cram that on top of it all. But we can’t keep piling on more. This holiday, give yourself and your loved ones permission to be balanced, not to try and do it all, and instead to try and enjoy it all (or at least the majority of it).

Carmen Dodsworth, BSc., MA.
Registered Psychologist

This Time, I’ll Keep It Off……..

What do you really want? What are you doing to get it? Many of us can say the goals we think we want, we even know a lot about what we should do to reach them, but time and time again we just can’t get going or we can’t keep going. In reality, there are fairly common roadblocks to change that I address in my work with clients.

1. Many change plans fail because people underestimate the impact of not addressing their mindset. You can have all the tools, well-made plans, and support available to you but if you do not get your mindset right then it will be next to impossible to create lasting change. Often, we are more committed to our vision of how we see things, what we believe about ourselves and the world than we are to the change we wish we could see. Learn about how you think and the assumptions you make about yourself and the world. Nothing will take the wind out of your sails faster than bullying self-talk.

2. We don’t accept the realities of life. Frustration, sadness, fatigue and setbacks are all inevitable realities in life. Many of us set out on a path and convince ourselves that  this time we are committed enough. Committed enough to what? Unfortunately, we often mean that we are committed enough not to experience some of the inevitable realities of life. If we misinterpret these experiences as indications that our plan is not good enough, assume it means that we will inevitably fail, or that we are incapable of actually making these changes, then we will quit. Our reactions to reality become significant sources of frustration, our motivation drops, and we once again make an incorrect assumption – that our lack of motivation is a reason to quit.

3. Waiting for the magical moment is another saboteur of change. Why? Because there is no magical moment. We live in a world of mostly instant gratification, surface level communication and distraction. Most of us have become increasingly impatient and unfamiliar with real-life. When you stop smoking, there is no magical moment in which you become a non-smoker, when you go on a diet there is no instant in which you become healthy, and when you start exercising there is no set time when you become an athlete. You won’t suddenly feel different, and when you wait for that you are likely to give-up out of a false belief that what you are doing is making no difference. To be clear, there is no neutral, you are always moving in a direction towards or away from the things you want. It is more correct and motivating for you to identify yourself as a health-conscious, non-smoking athlete the day you begin the change process.

4. But it feels awkward. Of course it does! You have made a change and while you are adapting and integrating these changes into your life and sense of self it will feel weird. It is like learning a foreign language and requires a lot of conscious thought and tolerance for things not to be natural to you in the beginning. First you will feel awkward disengagement and even a sense of disorientation. This is the ‘fake it till you make it’ phrase that blasted motivational speaking circuits in the 80s. What many of those speakers forgot to highlight is the important of letting go before you can fully engage with and integrate the changes you have made.

5. We define it wrong. During the change process, it is very important to consider what your measure of success is. Nobody can lose 50lbs. today, but you can take action today. If you define success by showing-up consistently, then you can identify success in a very short amount of time. The mantra I repeat to myself almost daily is to “show up today”, it is obtainable and allows me to have low energy days and days where I hit it out of the park. Both are successes. Also, if you pay attention to the positive feeling that you have when you leave the gym (more awake, less stressed, better mood) instead of the number on the scale, then the change will be more reinforcing. The scale can be part of the big picture, but the habits you create in the short and medium term should be your focus first.

6. We don’t actually want it, but we think we do. The best example for this is the beach body. So many people think they want the beach body, but they have never actually thought about what goes with that. Calories, hours in the gym, no alcohol. All deal breakers because that is not the life they picture for themselves. Before you embark on a change plan stop and look realistically at what it will look like and ask yourself whether that is something that really fits you.

Carmen.

It is Dark. A lot.

Every year around the winter daylight savings time change, we see a significant influx of crisis calls from familiar and new clients. Most people will share that they can’t put their finger on any one specific thing, but rather allude to a sense of not being ‘ok’ and of losing the capacity to cope with life. This is often accompanied by anguish that they are not ‘ok’ and fear or shame that something is truly inherently wrong with them. There is some relief in knowing that you are not alone in feeling this way, and still there is a sense of feeling like you should be different. If by different you mean not human, then OK. If it is a sense of you needing to be super human so that you don’t have these types of human experiences, then read on.

 

 

Today the sun rose at 7:55am, and it will set at 4:49pm. That is a lot of darkness. When the sunlight touches us, our bodies release serotonin which is a hormone that significantly impacts our mood. It lifts and regulates our emotional state. When we are exposed to darkness melatonin is released, which makes us feel sleepy. The sunlight also helps with many other good things like Vitamin D, which plays a role in memory, focus, and stress responses. On top of the impact of darkness, the shortened days and cold weather mean a significant reduction in fun for many of us. Life can become even more monotonous and filled with to-do tasks, rather than I-want-to activities. The change of the clock is also the time when we really, really realize that summer is over and we are feeling the effects of the first snow fall. September’s excitement and novelty has long worn off. Christmas holidays are too far to be excited about and tend to seem like an ever longer to-do list this far out. And because we are at the start of winter, many of us have not transitioned yet and are still in the “I hate this weather” mentality. (On a side note, we should all think about the concept of living in a northern climate and complaining about the snow). So, when all of these changes compound as they do around this time of the year, people feel less vibrant, motivated, awake, and happy. Less like themselves. However, there are things that can be done to set yourself up for feeling better. Make small, manageable and maintainable, lifestyle changes.

So many people tell me that lifestyle strategies to help with mood don’t really work. What I think they may actually be saying is that they don’t work immediately or in a large way. There is no real instant gratification to making small changes other than to know that you are doing something productive. The most immediate difference you may notice is an improved sense of esteem. There is another way to look at it though. Do you know what I am doing when I don’t go to bed early? Staying up late, drinking wine, and preparing my next day sluggish mildly hung-over feeling. When I am drinking a litre of water to brighten up, I am probably avoiding the third, fourth or fifth cup of caffeine that will wake me in the night for a quick review of everything I forgot to do that day. When I am in the gym or out for a walk? I am less likely to be turning to over-done fistfuls of carbohydrates as a way of boosting my mood or energy. It doesn’t mean that those things don’t happen, but they are less frequent and less severe when they do. Managing our wellbeing is not as simple as avoiding bad habits, it is about adding in positive ones too.

Complaining about inevitable realities is another drain on our mood. People tend to underestimate how much the negative commentary that we keep impacts our mental state. It is Calgary, and it is cold. Why be upset about it? Being overly negative about snow, weather, dark and short days, reflects a mental state of stress. These are predictable circumstances, that will continue to happen whether you are OK with it or not. When you find a situation in your life that presents repeatedly you can either; change the situation, change yourself, or leave. In this case you could either change Calgary’s weather, change the way you think about the weather, or move. But, to stay in Calgary and react constantly to this situation is toxic.

Obviously two of the options are not feasible for us, although I suppose some could move. The option to change your thoughts about it is reasonable. This does not mean that you have to LOVE the weather, but you could at the very least be neutral about it.  Sure, I’d love a warm sunny day, but if it is going to be cold and snowy then maybe I can light the fire, make a hot drink, and eat dinner there. I have learned to love winter sports, not because it is natural for me to do that, but instead because I place a great deal of value on fun and time with family and friends. I don’t appreciate the darkness, but I have responded to it by taking vitamins and altering my clinical schedule a little to allow for me to be home slightly earlier so that I can sneak in a quick walk with my very poorly behaved dog (and usually a family member or two). I’ve had to wake up much, much earlier than I would like to but I choose to create time for some ‘life’ activities before I start the clinical work so that I don’t feel off-balance or build a life of all-work. Stop and take some time to look at the life you have constructed, be clear about what is in your control, and be intentional about the way you engage with your circumstances.

 

Every running race I have done, I have found great relief when I pass the half-way mark. So, it is no surprise that I know there is only 36 more days until Winter Solstice, the day that will bring the reversal of the shortening of our days. Challenge yourself to write down a few small changes, and see if you can maintain them most days until Solstice. Bed early, less alcohol, more exercise, healthier diet, meditation, vitamins, less complaining…whatever you choose just be sure it fits you and make absolutely sure you include a goal of fun.

~C.D