Sunday, December 6, 2009

Action instead of Aggravation

That's what I used to say to my kids when they were worried about something that might happen in the near future: Instead of,"Let's do something about it instead of worrying ourselves to death," I'd say. "Action Instead of Aggravation!"

I see I haven't changed much in the last 40 years. Here's an exchange I had recently with someone who wrote me an email. (The letters she sent were much longer than the excerpts I've copied here.)

(1)  Country: Canada
Permission: OK to publish

Question: Dear Barbara.......I am so glad I found you at this time in my life! I stumbled on your book "Live The Life You Love" at the library. I have never been in such a "dark" place in all my life. [She goes on to describe a very difficult childhood and the resulting anxiety she has always experienced] It has prevented me from doing much. I recently moved back home (sadly my mom has passed on so her warmth is not here) and my dad is still verbally abusive... My sister is mentally ill and has been taking her wrath out on me and my brother since we were small.

My grown kids are always angry with me. Even my best friend says she is tired of my "pity parties." I'm seeing a counselor who listens very well but cannot really help me other than listen.

My courage is at an all time low - I need a job. There's more, and it's just as bad. Anyway, any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.


(2)   Hi GL:

I have a suggestion. I'm hardly the first person to advise this, and you're not going to want to do it but you should really give it a try. It almost always works:

Go to some place where people need something you’re skilled at (like speaking English, for instance) and help them. That is, volunteer.

Don't volunteer to lick stamps or do any kind of solo work. Go where there you can help humans who need you. Teaching English to people who want to learn it is one thing you can do. No matter how low your self-esteem might be, you must admit you speak pretty good English.

Everyone who teaches English to immigrants or reading to illiterate adults invariably loves it. They tell me they meet wonderful, courageous people who are really worth helping. They get a lot of respect from their students, too, and getting respect right now would be better than vitamins for you.

You’re clearly depressed, so I'm glad you're getting professional help. But your letter shows that you're too much in the habit of thinking and talking about yourself. That's not wise. Isolation exaggerates dark feelings. Get into action and focus on something important enough to make you forget yourself for a few hours every day. Sign up for a steady schedule, and volunteer to teach conversational English to foreigners in classrooms. Or at coffee. Or in the park after class. It will open up a new world for you.

Try it and see.


(3) Thank you so much Barbara. I feel honored that you would take the time to offer some advice to little old me. I just started the chapter in your book( Lesson 6 on Resistance.) I am only able to read at night in bed (easier to concentrate) so will read on tonight. I just feel so insignificant and transparent and so very sad. I might be depressed but everything in my life is conducive to that so it's a "normal" depression I think. I am actually a very strong person but lately it's all getting too much. I might try and move to Cold Springs Island where I can live surrounded by wildlife. GL

(4) No, no, unh unh, GL. Bad idea. I don’t think you heard me. First, I strongly advise against moving anywhere that will make you more isolated than you are right now. You need to have your thoughts interrupted by appointments, human voices and faces. Everyone who's down in the dumps always wants to be more alone but isolation almost always makes everything worse.

Second, let me spell out what I told you in my previous note: I said to go — on a regular basis, like every Tuesday and Thursday morning of every week for at least 3 months — to a location where you can help someone else. Teaching English to foreigners is one way to do that, but not the only way.

Third, I didn’t say to read Lesson 6 on Resistance. or any of my books. They won’t help you right now. They're not right for where you are. The only thing that’s right for you at this point in time is to pick yourself up, hose yourself down, put on some clothes that won't attract attention and find a volunteer job helping other people. You are in no position to be thinking about yourself right now. You must battle your self-focused impulses and be able to think about others, people you feel responsible for, at least 6 hours a week. Otherwise you'll never get out of that damp, dark basement.

Fourth: Your circumstances are certainly bad, but it doesn’t matter why you’re depressed, you are depressed. If you weren't, you'd change your circumstances for the better without writing me. But that's hard to do when you're feeling negative. You're not in any mood to create opportunities or invent something great for yourself. Taking initiative isn't one of the symptoms of unhappiness. But there are projects that already exist and you can go to them. Your lack of energy can't be reversed unless you have to be somewhere at a certain regular time doing something with other humans; something that makes a difference.

If you can't find a way in the door to teach English to adults, go to a women’s shelter, find out what they need and see if you can find a way to get it for them. Sometimes it means no more than cleaning out your closet and giving them some nice clothes, or children's books to read to their kids. Well, for starters. Then you have to start bothering other people to donate their clothes and children's books. :-) Next thing you know, you'll feel depressed a whole lot less.

Helping animals can be good too, but I think you need a different kind of feedback, more challenging to your "long thoughts," so it's humans for you, at least for a while. Help them. Make their lives easier. That's a sunny occupation and will get rid of the mold that wants to grow in your thinking.

You won’t want to do this, I know. Clearly you feel bitter, a victim of injustice, and you don’t want to help anyone. You might think you have nothing to give. Or that you have to straighten out your life before you can help other people. But trust me, that thinking, justified or not, will keep you weak. Quit looking at the darkness around your shoulders. Look out the window instead.

Now, quit reading my book and fantasizing about getting a job. Just drag your butt out there and do what I'm telling you.


(6) Hi Barbara

I don't know if I will have the time to volunteer as I have to get a job before my savings are all depleted. This means I have to summon up strength that I don't know if I have and put all my time and efforts into earning a living.(even if I have to take anything for now) With the economic times the way they are there are many unemployed and me being 53 years old I don't exactly have youth on my side either. I do so appreciate you taking the time to reply Barbara.


If you get dressed and make some calls and volunteer tomorrow, you might have the energy to look for a job the next day or the next week. You'll also have the air of someone who's doing something on this planet that matters. You'll make a better impression in an interview than you can today.

If you stick around your volunteer position for a month or so and give it everything you've got, and you put your heart into never short-changing the people who need your help, you'll probably get hired by the organization, or, at the very least, be given a great letter of recommendation. Showing up and caring about what you do will make you stand out from the crowd. You'll be noticed.

If you don’t do what I'm telling you to do, and pretty quick, you might just stay where you are until all your savings are gone.

You know I'm right. Why didn't you go looking for a job yesterday? You felt lousy, that's why. It's the same reason you won't go looking for a job tomorrow.

Quit writing me letters and start searching the internet for a volunteer opportunity, right now.


(7)  Okay, Barbara - I will try my best! You're tough. Thanks.

Well, dear reader, that's the whole exchange. I haven't heard from her, and I have no more muscle to make her do something than you see above. I know that chances are at least 50/50 that she won't act soon enough to avoid being pulled further down into the soup. But that leaves a whole 50% chance that she will, and that's worth the effort.

So why do I answer letters like this one? Well, I've had enough practice and experience to know that I'm probably right in what I told her. And I get lots of letters that show that sometimes I do make a difference.

For the rest, I do it for myself. I just remember what Tracy Kidder said in one of my favorite books, Mountains Beyond Mountains:

"If you do the right thing well, you avoid futility."

He's talking about a true hero, Doctor Paul Farmer. There aren't enough people on this planet like him. He has set himself an almost impossible task - originally to stamp out tuberculosis in Haiti. But he's made amazing progress not only against the disease but against the world-wide organizations and people who block real solutions. And that's not the most 'impossible' task he's set himself. He's throwing everything he has at trying to stamp out poverty because he knows it's the true cause of disease.

I'm not a hero, just one of those people who knows a couple of things and isn't afraid to boss people around and tell them what to do. There aren't enough of us, either.

But I'm trying to do something about that, too. I'm helping some wonderful students use their personal experience to help others, so I have reason to expect that soon there will be more bossy people who know what they're talking about, walking up to people they recognize as being like themselves, and bossing them around too."Get into action. Do something for somebody and stick with it for a while!" Action instead of Aggravation!

I'm hoping for a groundswell.



Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sometimes you have to remember to cry even if you don't know why.

I have an acceptable reason to cry these days, a reason everyone understands. I lost my Mom last July. Being with her the last months while she was dying wasn't easy but there was a lot to do so I didn't cry much. But ever since, that pain sneaks up on me.

I know from years of experience that when I hurt, I should cry. The problem is that I don't always know when hurt is trying to surface. Sometimes I turn it off. Sometimes my big, dumb bodyguard, Resistance (I sometimes call it 'Slugger') thinks it's protecting me from danger by turning the switch on *all* my emotions to 'Off,' and leaving a leaden chest-plate in their place.

So this morning I was working here furiously, my 3 computers - the 10 month old, 2 year old and 5 year old - all open at the same time, and I was having fun designing and setting up new programs and scheduling them, tweeting them, checking my Google Alerts and my Twilerts and Tweetbeeps, humming along as I often do at this jolly time of day when I am frequently quite deft at spinning plates -- when I start to notice that I'm getting totally lost every time a computer slows down or 'Spaces' tosses me to the wrong screen. This is not what I want.

It gets worse and my brain finally grinds to a complete standstill. It's gotta be that A.D.D., I'm thinking. I'm familiar with it: a fog shows up from time to time and I find myself staring blankly at my notes and those sites open on my computer screen, all of which so recently seemed significant and now they all look like they're written in Linear B and I'm Tarzan, and don't know how I came to be sitting here in this familiar but incomprehensible world. (I don't think Tarzan works quite right here, but if you have A.D.D., you know what I mean.)

Damn. Well, I can't do anything about an A.D.D. seizure but let it pass, I guess. And then I notice the heaviness of that leaden chest-plate and I remember what that usually means: something hurts. It doesn't feel like hurt, but that's what it feels like when I'm avoiding feelings. I might not know what it's about, even, and if I did, who wants to experience pain? But I know I'd better try to cry or I'll waste the whole day.

(If you find it odd to acknowledge the presence of emotional hurt when the cause isn't clear, think for a moment. You don't require an explanation of causes when other bodily needs make themselves known. If you're driving and you don't know why you're sleepy, for example, chances are there's a good reason. Pull over and take a nap.)

I'm familiar with this phenomenon as you know if you've read any of my books or come to see me back when I had time to see people. (New thought: I never got foggy when I was working with a living human. Not once. Hmmm. That's worth exploring later.)

Since I invariably become stupified at such moments and don't remember what to do, I've given myself instructions so simple a microbe would understand: Cry.

Right now, with something so obviously painful in my recent past, I don't need to wonder what hurts. I just have to picture my poor mom going through those weeks of discomfort, delirium and fear and the dam breaks and I'm sobbing again. And when the sobbing has finished shaking me around, the lead in my chest and the confusion in my brain are gone. I know that outcome from experience, I expect it, and it happened that way today. And as soon as I finish telling you about this phenomenon, I'm going back to work.

If you're anything like me (or the thousands of people I've worked with in the last 40 years) you'll find that sometimes the signs of sorrow will sneak up on you when nothing painful has happened at all. At those times it's even harder to remember to get out the tears* because 1) you don't feel hurt, you just feel odd, and 2) there doesn't seem to be anything to cry about. This can present a problem that may not be as hard to solve as a quadratic equation w/ 3 unknowns, but hard enough.

(Ask me another time about how fear, the fear that something bad is about to happen in the near future, is often about your sense that a painful emotion is trying to fight its way to the surface. Which is to say, you're actually afraid that the *past* is about to happen.)

To add to the confusion, it's not always hurt that has surfaced, not exactly. It could be nothing more than stress. Studies indicate that tears contain stress enzymes, which might mean that releasing tears relieves stress. It could be fear (which is actually stress, I think)  Children, and some of us grownups, can cry when they're frightened. It could even be anger. People who can't or don't want to get really pissed off will sometimes cry from frustration or rage.

I personally believe that you can find some kind of sorrow hiding beneath stress and fear and frustration, but no matter, right now. The point is that if you feel uneasy and/or 'turned off,' bringing up tears will calm you down and wake you up almost every time**. Tears will ease your heart and return your eyesight and brain function. They melt lead chest-plates like hot water melts ice cubes.

But how are you supposed to cry (not that you've consented to do any such thing, I understand that) when you can't think of anything to cry about? Isn't this 'Cry-just-in-case' thing just another gimmick, like spinning or blinking or rapidly tapping your forehead with a small brass hammer? I don't know much about those things, but I doubt it. I'd like to make the case that babies never bother themselves with such questions and they don't seem to care why they want to cry. They cry when they feel like it, and calm down (or doze off) afterwards.

Truth is, for the purpose of quickly relieving numbness, confusion, or the frozen feeling you have before a speech or an audition or an interview or a first date, it doesn't matter what you cry about. It's not even important if you never find out. Think about all the grand, loving, lost collies like Lassie who never got home from Scotland or how it's raining in Odessa if that works, and the resulting emotion, like an aspirin, will seek out the place it's needed and do its work with no further help from you.

Okay, I let my tears out and I feel better and will now get back to setting up my new events, taking side trips to read stuff by kind Jonathan Field and wise Havi and finish the assignments for my heroic WriteSpeak students and get new short url's for my youtube videos...etc. etc. Sticks are up, plates are ready to resume spinning.

But I'm going to try to remember one thing that I didn't think about before:

When I'm in a fog, it's not always A.D.D. at all.

Or, if it is, I've found a cure and will expect notification that I've been awarded the Nobel Prize (or at least the host-ship of Oprah's show) in my mailbox.

I'd really love you to comment below. I'll do everything I can (subscribe to my own blog?) to answer you as soon as I can.

Here are those footnotes you forgot about:

*For those of you who find actual wet tears to be maddeningly evasive, some semi-deep breathing -- or a 'woe is me' series of sighs -- will create almost the same benefit.

** If you cry often and easily, bringing up tears probably won't work for you and my advice is to check with your local psychopharmacologist for signs of depression. If you get the all-clear on that, here's a fortune-cookie piece of advice (but it works): grab a tennis racket and beat the living crap out of your stupid, insolent, bed mattress. Have no mercy. Find that part of you that is self-righteously enraged, completely unfair and unforgiving, and just punish that bugger.

What's the logic in that?
Because feelings that won't go away are frequently smokescreens for less acceptable feelings, and this is a harmless way to blow them out without hurting anyone. Well, it's sometimes kind of hard on the tennis racket. You might want to go to a thrift shop and keep a couple of cheap ones on hand. (Don't get a badminton racket or you'll wind up with a splinter in your eye and your mom will get mad at me.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What motivates *you*?

A long time ago I realized that when it comes to motivation, we’re all different.

I used to love making New Year’s resolutions. It always put me in a fantastic mood. A fresh start feels so invigorating. Each time I was just sure I’d buckle down and exercise every day, or write that novel, or get organized once and for all.

Sound familiar?

And have you found, like me, that you always break those promises to yourself? That your resolve melts and you turn back into who you were before that great, invigorating mood filled you?

If this is you, then welcome to the club. Whatever magical energy or character trait has propelled the megasuccesses we see on t.v., it is clear that most of us don’t have it.

Obviously, people like us make up a very big market. In fact, a major industry has emerged, devoted to cheerleading us into positive thinking and self-confidence, believing in ourselves, talking ourselves into being winners. And no matter how many books and programs appear, there is always a need for more of them. How strange that so many people still aren’t able to drive themselves to success. What’s the matter with us?

Were our Puritan forefathers right—that humans are born with bad stuff in them, streaks of laziness and weakness, negative thinking and worse? But then, why would nature allow the survival of such a defective species?

I began to get suspicious. Looking back over the past 30 years, I’ve somehow managed to build a life I love: I do work that excites me, I have good people around me and do a lot of traveling to beautiful places. I’ve published 7 books, speak around the U.S. and Europe, and have people writing me every day saying how helpful my work has been to them. That’s pretty much my whole list for a good life.

I did all of that without self-discipline or improving my character one iota. I complained loudly and often harbored self-doubt in my heart.

But when it comes to my dreams, I found out how to do it.

And so can you. Look back into your past and ask yourself the same question I did: What motivated you? You too have accomplished a lot in your life. You went to school, held a job and/or raised kids. Look at what you’ve accomplished and you will find, as I did, that you have your own energy source. You have instinctively developed ways that motivate you to swing into action and get things done.

You can use those same ways to create a life you love.

Here's how to write yourself a motivational report card\.

I've made a list of all the methods I know that could make us stick to our resolutions. I’m sure you’re familiar with them, and maybe even tried a few. How well did they work for you? Give each one a grade (A to F) for how much they've actually motivated you into action in the past (not how much you wish they worked if you had a better character). Whatever works for you gets an A. Whatever doesn’t, flunk it soundly. It may have done wonders for someone else, but we’re looking for what works for you.

Pull out a pencil and a sheet of paper and copy this list (or copy and paste this into a document and print it out). Then grade each one, and make your comment.

Method Grade Comment









Taking a Class


Positive Thinking

Getting Lots of Praise

Repeating Affirmations


Creating your own reality

Promising Yourself a Reward

Help from buddies

Now look at that list. Do you see any patterns in what motivates you and what causes to you fail? I hope you’re starting to understand where the blame belongs for your past defeats. Nothing was wrong with you. You were using the wrong motivational methods, and they held you back as surely as trying to run a race with a stone in your shoe.

If you've answered all these questions, you now you have the right knowledge to take charge of your own motivational program. If you need praise, call your friends and ask them if they can think of anything good about you, and if so, would they tell you. (TiP: Do it by email and you'll be able to read the results when you need them. If you prefer the telephone, head over to one of the free conference call services on the internet so you can record it and play it back at will :-)

If you need to be pushed, set up a buddy system and you can help each other. Or take a class or hire a coach. The structure and accountability really works.

If you work best in a team, pull some people into your project to work with you or just get together once a week and help every member with his or her own goals. If you're really serious about getting somewhere in a short time, check out one of my best ideas: Success Teams are now running in cities and towns all over the world and now, on the telephone. See if you can join one today and get the support you need.

And give yourself a break by never again assuming that you should be able to win using someone else’s motivational style. That’s over. You’re the expert on what you need, so listen to yourself!

{adapted from Live The Life You Love in 10 Easy Step-by-Step Lessons, winner of "Best Motivational Book of 1996" from Books For A Better Life Award Commission)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How's your mantra working for you?

You may be better at positive thinking and self-talk than I am, and I only try to use a mantra when I'm having trouble falling asleep. I also am unsure if the universe really sends us stuff, but if it does, it's responsible for the flu and flat tires along with anything nice. So I don't depend on the universe.

I might not be right. I don't like anything I can't do, so if any of this stuff works for you, ignore me.

The thing is, I've come to believe that Resistance is a primitive, powerful part of our survival mechanism, and it hasn't advanced since the stone age. All it seems to know is that when you get apprehensive about doing something, it smells danger. And when it smells danger, it does everything it can to stop you.

Plain and simple. Every cure follows from that. 

It suddenly makes other stuff you don't really want to do incredibly attractive: (I've really been wanting to do my taxes early this year, I've been meaning to clean out the space under the sink, why not now?), or it makes you suddenly hungry (A sandwich! I need that! Now!) or it comes up with amazingly poor but totally convincing arguments (It won't work anyway, I'm probably too old/unconnected/under-educated/stupid, if I fail I'll look like a total jerk) and the most illogical of all (I never finish anything anyway, why get started?)

It's all about motivation, says the world, and you can't turn around fast without hitting someone trying to motivate you. "Just Do It!" "Believe it and you can surely achieve it!" "Don't create Resistance in the first place!" "Love yourself!"

Again, if that works for you, ignore me. I personally can't make myself believe something I don't believe and that's that. But even if I could, I know that positive thinking just isn't strong enough to get you around resistance and avoidance. Seems to me there's a whole lot more to it than just saying: 1) I'm doing something wrong, 2) I should stop doing something wrong.

Like, why are you resisting? That's the question that comes into my mind every time I talk to someone who has trouble going after a dream. It's my whole focus on the interactive telephone classes I give as often as I can. And I find the answer, time after time, with everyone I work with. And it's not just an answer, it's something to do that makes Resistance go away so you can do what you want to do.

After decades of this kind of work, I've gotten clever at it. At one writer's retreat I put every single one of the participants through the resistance process, found out what was really stopping them, showed them how to make it simply disappear - sometimes forever. More often, for long enough to do what they wanted to do, and then the option of doing it again whenever they needed to.

And one of the attendees watched me carefully. When it was over, she called me the Resistance Whisperer, and I guess I love that name better than anything I've ever been called.

It sounds like I'm saying that 'whisperers' have a kind of magic they can do, but that's not it at all. The original 'Horse Whisperer,' Monty Roberts, simply watched horses, hour after hour, day after day, carefully, with the deepest respect, for a very long time. He wanted to understand them so he learned their ways and their language before he made any attempt to influence them. The reason he did that because it pained him to see the way most horses were treated. That's familiar to me, too, but not with horses. With people.

Resistance isn't as gentle and appealing as an animal, but if you want to keep it from crushing your dreams, you'll do well to develop the same respect and understanding as Monty Roberts did for horses.

And for starters, you might decide, as I did, that you'll have to do a bit more to overcome resistance than simply telling yourself to "Just Do It."