Help to Make it Through the Night

On two successive Friday evenings I found myself lured toward depression by an inner voice that sounded very much like self compassion. My challenges on these two evenings helped me recognize the importance of spotting depression’s early warning signs and developing strategies to keep the beast at bay. 

night
Baby, It’s Cold Outside

I try to walk 10,000 steps a day. A week ago Friday, I logged half those steps on a lunchtime walk with my partner. She planned to walk to a yoga class in the evening, so I decided to go with her to get my remaining steps. 

About an hour before she left, the sky grew dark. It started to rain. The wind whipped up. She decided that she would drive to yoga instead. And my pseudo-compassionate inner voice told me that I should stay home. It was wet and blustery outside. Why not stay where it’s dry and cozy?

I’m Too Tired

On the second Friday, my partner had plans to join a friend to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker. I was happy that she was going, and happier that I wasn’t. 

When a friend called to ask if I wanted to go get happy hour fish ‘n chips at a nearby Irish pub, I said I would pass. I genuinely wasn’t in the mood for happy hour. 

The Dark Night of the Soul

In both cases it took me a while to realize that something was awry. I wasn’t behaving as I normally would. I’m good about getting my steps in. I’m up for a spontaneous happy hour. So, what was going on?

I’ve often heard depression described as the dark night of the soul. And, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two whisperings came on two of the longest Friday nights of the year.

My biological sleep timer releases melatonin at sunset to cue me that bedtime is approaching. I have no problem taking a walk at this hour most of the year. I have no problem accepting a happy hour invitation if there’s a trace of sunlight. On days when the sun never truly rises, and sets by 4:30 p.m., it’s a different story.

Fighting Back

If I didn’t know that exercise and spending time with others were the most effective ways to combat depression, I might have given in to that voice.

But, because I knew the inner voice was singing a siren’s song, I declined its advice.  

On the first Friday, I put on my rain gear and braved the night. The walk turned out to be lovely. It stopped raining, the wind died down, the air was fresh, and the holiday lights reflected on the damp pavement were lovely.

On the second Friday, I changed my mind and told my friend I’d go. We walked over to the local Irish pub. The happy hour fish ‘n chips and Guinness were delicious. My friend is one of the only people in my life willing to discuss politics. It was fun.

The Holiday Cure

It’s no coincidence that we in the Northern Hemisphere have packed so many holiday celebrations around the longest night of the year. We string up colorful lights to compensate for the darkness and the absence of autumn leaves. We practice generosity by exchanging gifts. We get together with family and friends. We overeat to pack on the fat to help keep us warm.

Unfortunately, since all of these antidotes to the winter doldrums are artificial, some of us don’t respond to them. Somehow, all the things we’re told we should do to be joyful only make us feel more alone. 

Lost in Translation 

For me, showing love for others by giving and receiving gifts got shelved during my years in retail advertising. I lived with Christmas six months a year. I witnessed little generosity, lots of stress and greed. I can still recall the ghost of one Christmas past when an art director friend, who, after working sixteen hour days for twenty-one days in a row dropped dead on her Monday morning bus ride. Ho ho ho.

Since this seemed to be the only love language my family spoke, I felt alone, and guilty for feeling alone. 

I didn’t know that there were four other love languages, according to Gary Chapman, that spoke to me. 

Ten Minute Exercise

If the traditional prescriptions for getting through these long winter nights don’t resonate, gift yourself ten minutes to consider whether one (or more) of these prescriptions does. 

1. Words of Affirmation

I wrote about my thank you experiment in my previous post. By continuing to give thanks to the people in my life, I’ve been receiving all the words of affirmation I could ask for.

2. Quality Time

I spoke to a woman at a Solsara Introduction Meetup who had ditched her office holiday party in favor of an evening of exercises in authentic, mindful communication. She was surprised how much difference sustained eye contact and attention to her breathing and internal emotions made in the quality of communication. 

Meetup.com offers lots of ways to connect with people who spend quality time participating in shared interests. 

3. Acts of Service

I volunteered to lead a discussion for my meditation group on the work of Byron Katie. I was surprised how open everyone was about sharing beliefs that caused them stress, and how eager they were to work through that stress together. 

Volunteering is a wonderful way to receive while giving.

4. Physical Touch

A 20-second hug is the fastest relief I’ve found for counteracting depression and anxiety. I got to watch the power of touch work its magic again the other day at a drop-in cuddle at Portland Social Connection.

This is something you definitely should try at home if you have a consensual partner. If you don’t, seek out group cuddles, a professional cuddler, or a Swedish massage.

Oh, and don’t forget to exercise.

Gift of Thank You!

What should you get your friends and co-workers this holiday season? How about something they’ll thank you for by returning or re-gifting it?

Thank You Scarf
Give a SCARF

Stop! Before you click away, let me clarify what I mean by SCARF. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, uses the acronym SCARF to describe six gifts that all humans want from each other: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

How do I know this is what your friends and co-workers want? When our ancestors earned their living by hunting and gathering in small tribes, these qualities led to more and better mating opportunities. Regardless of what your ancestors left us in their wills, they left us brains that view our SCARF as essential to survival.

Choking Hazard

Unfortunately, if we rely on others to give us a SCARF when we most need one, we may find ourselves out in the cold. And if we hold onto our own SCARF too tightly to keep others from snatching it, we may accidentally strangle ourselves.

Surprisingly, the best practice for assuring you’ll have a SCARF when you need one is to give them away year-round.

Thank You Messages

In helping people move from depression to well-being, I’m more motivated by pragmatism than altruism. 

So, for the past week or so I’ve been sending thank you emails and messages not because therapists recommend it, but because Google engineers do.

Many of the best engineers in the world start their workday by sending a quick thank you message to a colleague.

Status

When your friend or co-worker reads your appreciative message it gives their sense of status a boost.

People who receive such messages reply with a “thank you” or the occasional “you made my day” at much higher rates than the average message.

When they do, this gives your sense of status a boost. 

(Note: on the occasions when recipients don’t reply, you’re still ahead of the game. See Relatedness below.)

Certainty

As hunter gatherers, our bellies gave us crucial feedback on whether we’d had a successful day. 

Since the invention of the assembly line it’s been harder to pinpoint our role in the overall scheme of things. This leaves many of us uncertain about our value to the company, and to the friends we don’t see as much as we used to. 

Composing a thank you email reminds us that people have done things that we value. Letting them know can help give them certainty. Maybe much needed certainty if they read it before a morning full of seemingly pointless meetings.

Autonomy 

The best jobs offer us autonomy in how we accomplish our goals. But, if we don’t currently have a job that offers a lot of choice, we can still practice autonomy in who we thank.

After we thank the people who help us most often, we force ourselves to become creative and thank people for things that we may have taken for granted.  

Relatedness

If we have a job that doesn’t constantly put us in touch with other people, it’s easy to lose sight of our interconnectedness. Sending thank you messages helps us recognize that we have been the beneficiaries of great kindness and connection.

That connection or kindness may no longer be a part of our everyday lives, but bringing it to mind strengthens our sense of relatedness.

Studies show that recognizing the depth of our social connections is as important a predictor of longevity as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking. 

Fairness

The only problem that I’ve experienced so far in thanking people is that it requires so little effort that it doesn’t seem fair.

But, as I review how it benefits both parties when it comes to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness, I have to conclude that it is.

Two Minute Exercise

1. Take a piece of paper or a text document and on each line write down one aspect of SCARF.

Status

Certainty

Autonomy

Relatedness

Fairness 

2. Give yourself a score from 0-10 on how you currently rate yourself on each aspect.

3. For 21 days (or 21 work days) write a thank you message to someone from your past or present who has helped you. Be specific about how.

Examples: 

I used your Excel spreadsheet tip yesterday and it saved me twenty minutes. Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

Thank you so much for your honest feedback about my performance. I look forward to honing my skills.

Thank you so much for getting back to me yesterday about my question so quickly.

4. After 21 days, repeat step one. 

5. Compare the first SCARF sheet with the second.  

Bonus Points: Take 20 seconds to thank a friend or co-worker face to face. Make eye contact when you do it. The benefits you receive from face to face thanks have a multiplying effect.

Extra Bonus Points (in a little over a minute): 

Watch the video of Shawn Achor and Oprah on Thank You Messages (1:20)

And here’s Rick Hanson’s take on “Say Thanks

Holiday Conversations

I was impressed by how effective this year’s political campaigns were at creating division and fear. As we come together with friends and family of all political stripes over the holidays, what would happen if we analyzed how politicians behaved and did the opposite? Would our conversations create connection and trust?

holiday conversation

Mindful Listening

The authors of the original mindfulness manual laid out simple guidelines for listening.

People may use five types of speech when addressing us.    

• Timely or untimely.

• True or untrue.

• Gentle or harsh.

• Helpful or unhelpful.

• Well-intended or malicious.

How should we respond?

No matter what is said, train your mind to remain unaffected. Always maintain kindness and compassion for the speaker’s well-being.

The Heat of the Moment

But how do we train to keep our composure, let alone good will, when people from the other side interrupt us, spin falsehoods, spout inflammatory language, and never waver from their malicious intent?

Some instructions adapted from Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offer ideas.

Timely Conversations

In the age of 24/7 media, cable news shows are hungry for the crisis of the moment. Polarized pundits duke it out by cutting each other off mid-sentence. This is great for amping up emotions and producing viral soundbites.

But how do our conversations with friends, family, and co-workers go when we cut people off mid-sentence? What if, instead, we invite others to share whatever is on their mind, and give them our full attention as they tell us?

One way to practice using timely speech is to designate a time for speaking and a time for listening.

Team up with a conversation partner and offer them the option to be speaker or listener.

Set a timer for three minutes.

Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.     

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

Tip: if the content of the speaker’s monologue rouses some strong sensations in the body, like those you associate with anger, consider whether the purpose of the occasion (such as getting together with friends and family) is to debate public policy or philosophical perspectives. To keep the conversation civil, try one of the approaches below.

Truthful Speech

Politicians and pundits are known for their selective and creative use of facts. They tend to acknowledge the ones that support their truth and ignore or cast doubt on the ones that don’t.

For political junkies fact checkers provide a great public service. But how do we feel about them in everyday interactions? If interrupting someone doesn’t turn a friendly conversation hostile, try upping your game by correcting them.

To practice resisting the urge to fact check the speaker, respond by paraphrasing your understanding of what they said, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understood you correctly….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clear-up any misinterpretations or important facts that you left out.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, if you’re not one-hundred percent sure of your facts, make it clear that you’re expressing a belief or opinion with phrases like, “It was my understanding that…” or “I think…” or “I feel…” Whatever follows these statements is always a fact.

Gentle Conversations

When politicians and pundits use harsh language, they’re out to arouse our emotions, not our reason. There’s method to this madness. Soundbites of harsh language spread like wildfire.

In real life, we don’t fight wildfires with fire but by creating the conditions for them to burn themselves out.

To practice resisting the urge to fight fire with fire, paraphrase your understanding of the speaker’s emotions as well as their words, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you’re feeling is…” or “It sounds like you’re feeling….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clarify their feelings.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, let your body awareness help you tap into how you feel as well as think about what you’re saying.

Helpful Conversations

Politicians go on defense and double-down whenever an idea they identify with is being judged.    

In real life, we go on defense at the slightest suggestion that we’re being judged:

• Incompetent.

• A bad person.

• Unworthy of love.      

To practice resisting the urge to threaten the speaker’s self image, use your body awareness to notice whether you’re tightening up and feeling judgmental. Remember that any feedback that makes the speaker feel defensive will not be helpful.

Conversely:

  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s words without judgment acknowledges their competence.
  • Recounting their feelings without judgment acknowledges their goodness.
  • Demonstrating that they’ve been heard and understood is one way of showing you care enough to listen.    

Tip: if you feel judged when it’s your turn to speak, start from the position that it isn’t the listener’s intention. See below.

Well-Intended Speech

If you’re not certain why a politician chose to say or do something, their opponent will be happy to tell you.

But one honest mistake we make creates misunderstandings more than any other: we judge the effect of our actions based on our intentions, and we infer other people’s intentions based on their actions.

For example, if we accidentally cut somebody off in traffic, we excuse ourselves because we’re running late. If someone cuts us off, it’s because they’re rude, reckless, and self-centered.    

So, if something we hear is hurtful to us, we assume that it was meant to harm us.

To complicate matters, once we assume we know someone’s intentions, we accept our assumption as fact. Even if the offender later claims they meant no harm, we may not believe them.

When you’re unclear on the speaker’s intentions, you can express that uncertainty with “I’m a little fuzzy on what you said about…” or “I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by….”

This gives the speaker the chance to clarify anything the listener misconstrued.

Tip: be aware that your own intention is to remain kind and compassionate for the listener’s well-being.

Ten Minute Exercise

To recap how to practice civil conversations:

1. Team up with a conversation partner to take turns as speaker and listener.

2. Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

3. During the next two minutes, the listener summarizes their understanding of the speaker’s words and emotions, including their uncertainty about the speaker’s intentions. The speaker then gets a chance to clarify.

4. Repeat steps two and three reversing the roles of speaker and listener.

To practice these conversation skills without the timer:

Give the speaker the gift of your attention.

Maintain some awareness of how your body responds to what is said.

When the speaker comes to a natural pause or starts a new topic, ask for permission to summarize by saying something like, “Before we move on, let me see if I understood you correctly.”

Before you speak, you might start with something like, “I don’t always speak as clearly as I’d like, so feel free to give me feedback on how this comes across.”

For handling anxiety while speaking or listening, try these ten second reality checks.

Fear of Being Unmasked

We think of our personality as our distinctive character. But the Latin root word, persona, means the mask through which an actor speaks. Like Halloween masks, our personality conceals who we really are. And we live in fear of being unmasked.

fear of unmasking

The Mask of a Best-Selling Author

With his first book, The School of Greatness, podcaster Lewis Howes achieved something that most authors only dream of. He debuted at the Number 3 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. Howes shared his experience in his second book, The Mask of Masculinity.

I had achieved so much of what I wanted with my book and with my career, but deep down, I was asking myself about the point of it all. I had no one to share it with. I had no intimacy or deep connection with anyone else.

I should have felt amazing, but all I felt was terrible.

Unmasking Masculinity

Howes began questioning the personality traits that had simultaneously brought him success and misery.   

What he discovered were nine culturally sanctioned and reinforced “masks” that men are expected to wear.

Stoic Mask: Showing emotion is an invitation to scrutiny, judgment, and rejection.

Athlete Mask: A good athlete is a good man–period. Non-athletic men must compensate by knowing everything about sports.

Material Mask: A man’s net worth is his self-worth.

Sexual Mask: A man’s worth is also measured by the number of women he’s slept with.

Aggressive Mask: Men never back down.

Joker Mask: Man’s cynicism and sarcasm can defend against every attempt to soften or connect with him.

Invincible Mask: Men are fearless.

Know-It-All Mask: If you don’t understand why a man is your intellectual superior, he’ll be happy to explain it to you.

Alpha Mask: There are only two types of men: alphas and betas, winners and losers.

Problems with Masks

Many problems with Halloween masks also apply to masks we wear in everyday life. They don’t fit. They’re uncomfortable. Eye holes limit our ability to see things clearly. Rubber pullover masks are sweaty and make it difficult to breathe. They sometimes frighten those we love without making an impression on those we mean to scare. At root, they’re not really who we are.

The athlete, material, sexual, aggressive, and alpha masks all place a man in never ending competition with every other man. The stoic and joker masks pit a man against his emotions. Implicit in the invincibility mask is the fear of being afraid.

Behind the Mask

To discover why his success hadn’t brought him fulfillment, Howes attended an intensive emotional intelligence workshop. It was like group therapy with one-on-one and group exercises where participants spoke openly about the suffering, pain, and resentment that held them back in life.

Before shifting to people’s vision for their future, the facilitator gave everyone a final chance to address anything from their past that they hadn’t covered yet.

The honesty and vulnerability of the space gave Howes permission to do a mental inventory. He realized that if he didn’t take this moment to address the time, at the age of five, he had been raped by the teenage son of his babysitter, (something he had never shared with anyone in his life), he would never feel comfortable sharing it.

His body walked him to the front of the room. He looked at the carpet because he was too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. And he walked through the entire experience–the sights, smells, sounds, touch, and tastes of it–matter-of-factly without holding back.

When he’d finished, he went back to his seat and erupted in tears of pain, sadness, relief, insecurity, and fear. Women on either side of him held him and cried with him.

The Courage of Vulnerability

It was all too much. Howes escaped from the room and the hotel. He put his hand on a wall and buried his face in his arm, ashamed. He couldn’t go back.

One by one, the men in the group came up to him, hugged him, and told them, “You’re my hero.”

Howes’s vulnerability had given them permission to share stories that they had always been too ashamed to share. They told this tearful man with snot coming out of his nose that what he had done was the most courageous thing they had ever seen.

The Question

Everyone told Howes that he needed to share this with the people in his life, but he didn’t know how to bring it up.

A therapist friend suggested he begin with a question. “Is there anything I could ever say or do that would make you not love me?”

When Howes found the bravery to unburden himself, his vulnerability gave his loved ones permission to share pain they had tried (but failed) to bury. Instead of splitting them apart, it brought them closer together.

These unexpected benefits motivated Howes to risk opening up to his podcast audience.

The Answer

Howes writes: When I took off the mask, I was able to share my feelings. I also felt freed up to do better work. This unmasking let my audience see the real me, and they liked that me better. The results were great for my business. my relationships, and my health. I feel more confident every day that my audience sees the real me and that they appreciate who I am for what I am.

It’s not the mask they liked; it’s me.

Ten Minute Exercise

Howes’s book covers the benefits of removing each mask and techniques to help do it. Some tools include journaling, finding balance, gratitude, acknowledging our emotional needs, honest connection, self-worth, listening, and celebrating others’ good fortune.

Part of the technique for handling the Aggression Mask involves forgiveness.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the forgiveness practice recommended by the Greater Good Science Center.

1. Take five minutes to write down exactly what happened, why it was wrong, and how it made you feel.

In the remaining five minutes:

2. Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.

3. Recognize that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning his or her actions.

4. Notice that your current distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what hurt you ten minutes—or 10 years—ago.

5. Practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response. For aggression, try this: Breathe in through the nose while slowly counting to four. Hold the breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Pause for a count of four. Repeat at least three times or until your calm is restored.

6. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, which gives power over you to the person who caused you pain, take the remaining time to write about something that makes you grateful.

Bonus: This nine-minute animated book summary will help you decide whether The Mask of Masculinity is for you.

This nine-step forgiveness technique offers additional details on moving forward to meet your positive needs.