At the end of yoga class last week, as we were all transitioning to Savasana (also known as Corpse Pose, the part of class in which you lie down and allow yourself to rest and relax after a period of self-exertion) our teacher said to us:
“Savasana is one of the hardest exercises we do in this class.”
My immediate thought was: “Are you kidding me?” After an hour of pretzel poses and burning muscles, dripping sweat and digging deep down for strength I didn’t know if I had or not… lying down on my back, closing my eyes, and allowing myself to rest and breathe is one of the hardest exercises we do in this class?
Our teacher continued:
“Savasana is where we send a physical and chemical message to our bodies to repair. It’s where we set ourselves up for success in the real world, after we leave this room.”
Of course, I knew what she really meant, which is that getting yourself to relax…is a challenge. Especially if you live a lifestyle that is over-scheduled, over-booked, always go-go-go, have a nervous system that is chronically blown out, and no matter how much you do, it never feels like enough.
We all know that relaxation and restoration are integral to setting ourselves up for success in so many different ways, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say that sometimes I feel like I have forgotten how to relax, to rest, to just be. Even when I’m “resting” I’m fighting the constant urge to “do something productive.” Even when I’m “relaxing” my mind is racing with ideas, meetings, tasks, social media, imaginary conversations, problems, hopes and fears.
For many of us living in the busy world of 2019, we have to learn (and relearn) how give ourselves both physical and mental rests in order to continue on.
If this is you, and you feel ready to find another way of being in the world and with yourself, I want to share a free audio mindfulness mediation that you can use today to begin your personal restoration journey. It’s free, it’s eight minutes long, and if you can commit to practicing it at least three times this week (that’s less than half an hour), you will be on your way to showing up differently to your life.
PS: I made this meditation myself, and people have told me I have a “very soothing voice” 🙂
In sharing this meditation with you, my hope is that it helps guide you to a place and practice of repair, rest and recuperation – so you can set yourself up for success in all the ways that matter most to you.
With me it's all er nuthin' Is it all er nuthin' with you? It cain't be "in between" It cain't be "now and then" No half and half romance will do! - Lyrics by Richard Rodgers, from the musical Oklahoma!
When I was in the sixth grade, my class staged a production of the musical Oklahoma!
It’s amazing the things that stick with you when you learn them at a young age. 23 years later, I still remember (basically) all the lyrics from the show.
Which brings me to this week’s blog post on All or Nothing thinking, a type of cognitive distortion that you NEED to know about. There’s a song in Oklahoma! called All ‘er Nuthin’ (see above), which – of course – inspired the yee-haw theme of today’s post. So if you’re thirstin’ for all the knowledge, read on, cowgirl!
Are you a person who struggles with all or nothing thinking? (Also known as black or white thinking.)
All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion, occurring in our automatic thoughts. It involves seeing things in absolute terms. When engaging with all or nothing thinking, the words “always” and “never” are common.
Some Oklahoma!-esque examples:
“I’m always so awkward at these box socials, and everyone kin see it!”
“My partner and I gotta be in sync 100 percent of the time, otherwise, we ain’t meant to be gettin’ hitched!”
It’s not abnormal to experience all or nothing distortions in our thoughts. In fact, some of you reading this right now may be thinking:
“Yikes! I do this! Like, ALL (or nothing) the time!”
If this is you, fear not. If the light bulb just went off in your brain, if something just clicked, you’re in the right place.
I want to give you access to one of the most important, powerful tools for addressing all or nothing thinking there is. You might say this is Strategy #1. And that strategy, is (drum roll)…
What is mindfulness? Contrary to what some have been led to believe, mindfulness is not about is not about “wiping out” negative thoughts, “clearing” or “emptying” your mind. Instead, mindfulness is about waking up to the present moment and allowing it to exist as it is with non-judgment and acceptance.
But right now, consider this: If you aren’t aware of your automatic thoughts, you cannot challenge them. Which is why the foundational mindfulness piece is oh-so important. Using this tool, you will begin to notice and identify all or nothing thinking as it arises in the wild west of your brain.
If you’re new to the mindfulness rodeo, starting with a guided audio mindfulness meditation is an ideal place for you to start.
2020 is less than a month away! With the end of the year (and decade) comes new chapters, new beginnings, as well as evaluations and reflections on the past six months (or “half” as they say in the tech world) at work.
Performance reviews are a special season unto themselves, and they can create quite a bit of discomfort, angst and panic for those forced to endure them.
Women in the male-dominated tech industry tend to feel additional pressure in these scenarios. Many women in tech I have worked with have expressed frustrations with how they have been reviewed, the specific areas of their performance that their supervisors and/or peers have chosen to critique, being passed over for raises or promotions, or receiving what they perceive to be irrelevant or unhelpful feedback. Some have felt that racism, sexism and unchecked privilege have bled into their performance reviews.
For these reasons, I have put together some guidelines designed specifically for women in tech to assist in managing and conquering the performance review process.
#1 Set a Clear Intention
It may be tempting to avoid thinking about your performance review and plan to just wing it, but it doesn’t take much time or energy to reflect on what you want to get out of this experience.
What are your hopes and the areas you want to focus on? Do you have something you want to communicate? Are you wanting to be awarded a promotion or a raise? Do you want feedback about a specific area in your role? Do you want to just focus on listening with an open mind? How, specifically, are you going to ask for what you want or act on your intention?
A few minutes of reflection and setting an intention for the review can help you feel more grounded, confident and prepared.
#2 Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Knowledge is power and the unknown tends to create a lot of anticipation. If this, for instance, is your first review at a new company and you aren’t sure about the process, what the format of the meeting will actually look like, or if you need to prepare anything specific beforehand…just ask. It will make you look responsible and attentive. Plus, knowing what to expect can help to quell some of your anticipatory anxiety.
This tip also applies to the actual review. If you receive some generic or vague feedback that makes you scratch your head, remain gracious and composed and ask for clarification.
Example: “You mentioned you want to see me take more initiative. In what specific ways?” “You said that you want me to play a role in expanding the team. In your mind, what are some of the actionable steps I should be taking to bring that to fruition?”
#3Protect Yourself Via Documentation
This step might not feel necessary for everyone, but we have a saying in the psych field: “If you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen.” If someone says something off-color, document it. If someone gives you feedback that doesn’t add up, even after following guideline #2, document it. In fact, if your gut is telling you that you need to document your entire performance review, do it.
Of course, always ask for and obtain permission beforehand (ideally via writing; perhaps over email) to take notes or audio record (review this guide for the latter) your meeting. You can simply say that you want to document the meeting so you don’t “miss any important information or feedback shared.” And if your request for documentation is denied, document that.
#4 Practice Concise But Informative Review-Writing
Tech workers have the added pressure of having to review (in many cases) their peers as well as themselves and their supervisors. For some, it’s basically like taking on a second job.
You may have a boss that just loves lengthy prose, in which case, if you feel inclined to write a novella in your performance reviews, go to town.
That said, we are living in 2019, and brevity is generally the preferred order of the day. People want their info quickly, clearly, and eloquently stated. So unless otherwise indicated, don’t feel you have to knock yourself out writing long, meticulous performance reviews. After all, you will be writing quite a few and your time is a limited resource. Come up with a few key points you’d like to communicate and figure out how to directly state your case in three to five sentences for each. Remember that a short, direct message (or “sound byte”) is more likely to be remembered than paragraphs upon paragraphs, anyway.
Catastrophizing that your performance review will result in your getting fired on the spot, forcing you to move back home to Virginia and live with your parents for the rest of your life? Personalizing a comment a coworker made about how you’re not enough of a “go-getter”? All or nothing thinking making you feel like a total failure for getting a few pieces of constructive criticism?
Thought records can help you put these thoughts into perspective, before and after your review occurs. Check out my posts on how to use them here and here.
#6Ramp Up Your Self-Care Practices
I know I sound like a broken record, but if your performance review anxiety is, say, making it hard to get enough sleep, causing you panic attacks, or just weighing you down emotionally more than you’d like, there isn’t any harm in increasing your self-care practices for a temporary period of time.
Exercise, mindfulness meditation, cutting down on caffeine or sugar, eating regular meals, spending extra time with your friends, partner, or pets, whatever it looks like…why not acknowledge that this is a challenging time and take extra good care of yourself? Come up with a daily self-care plan, put it on your calendar, and stick to it. You can plan extra self-care for the week leading up to the review as well as afterwards if you like.
#7Plan & Practice Your Go-To Response
Even though I was a psych major, I took a lot of creative writing courses in college. Whenever it was time for the entire class to critique my stories, I’d get nervous. Everyone was always really nice and supportive, but, like performance reviews, getting feedback on your work is an inherently uncomfortable process. One thing that helped me was to plan and practice my go-to response ahead of time.
If you’re a Frasier fan (as I am, but that’s another blog post), you may remember the episode where Martin goes on Antiques Roadshow with a bear clock he inherited. He tells his sons, Frasier and Niles, that no matter what the antiques expert tells him about the clock, he plans to reply with: “That’s pretty much what I figured.”
You may find it helpful to come up with a go-to catchphrase of your own. Something agreeable and gracious that acknowledges what the person has said and conveys that you are going to respectfully reflect on the feedback they’ve offered. After all, there’s no rule that says you have to have a quick rebuttal to everything someone says on the spot. Taking time to reflect and absorb shows thoughtfulness and self-possession.
#8 Remember that a Lot of the Time, People Just Need to Write Something
Whether it’s writing a performance review or a college paper, we’ve all had the experience of needing to just figure out something to write and not always knowing what that looks like. Add to this the fact that performance reviews are engineered to elicit constructive criticism, and the truth is that sometimes you wind up with feedback that…doesn’t feel all that meaningful.
I’m not saying you should automatically disregard criticism if you disagree with it, but if you’re getting feedback that seems totally out of left field and the person giving it isn’t even all that familiar with you or your work, consider the possibility that…they just had to write something.
Use guideline #2 to gain as much clarity as you can, be honest with yourself, and try not to over-personalize feedback that may not be all that personal.
#9Discuss Your Anxieties With a Supportive Person
It helps to have a friend, family member, mentor, partner, therapist or other support person you can talk to about your upcoming performance review anxiety. Choose someone who is non-judgemental, empathetic and encouraging, someone you feel safe being emotionally vulnerable with. Let them know that your upcoming review is causing you anxiety and why. Sometimes, just sharing your feelings with someone else can be comforting and remind you that you aren’t alone. If setting up a post-review debrief with them will help you feel more secure, you can ask to schedule a check-in with them. Be sure to return the favor, let them know how much you appreciate their support and always be considerate of their time.
#10 Trust Yourself to Handle Whatever Happens
Remember that whatever happens in your performance review, you will be okay. Things might not go the way you planned or wanted them to. You might not get the promotion you feel you deserved. You may feel unfairly judged or critiqued. Or, you may come out of your review feeling relieved and flattered.
You are a strong person, and you will handle whatever happens, when it happens. Take a wait and see approach and remind yourself that you have responded to difficult or challenging situations in the past, and you are fully capable of doing this now.
In many ways, the performance review is an exercise in rolling with the punches, and learning how to handle and respond to whatever feedback comes your way while maintaining composure and a can-do attitude. It reminds me of this quote by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
What are your strategies for managing performance reviews? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
The holidays are approaching and we all know what that means! Holiday work parties!
For many, it’s a time to eat, drink and be merry with reckless abandon. For those with social anxiety, it’s a blight on the calendar, a “do I really have to?” and “maybe I just won’t go?” cringe-fest.
As someone who struggles with social anxiety myself, I have had my share of dreading holiday work parties.
I’ve also gone to a number of them over the years, and I’ve never regretted going…after the fact.
I once had a friend tell me: “Make yourself go out. You’ll never regret having done something as opposed to skipping it.” I tend to agree with this philosophy. Office holiday parties can, under the right circumstances, be fun and a great way to socialize with your coworkers.
But it’s not always east getting getting yourself there. So in today’s post, I’m going to share six effective strategies for surviving the holiday work party when you have social anxiety.
Pick a friend, a coworker you get along with, or invite an outside guest if you’re allowed to do so. If you’d like, you can let this person know ahead of time that you feel a little awkward in social settings and would appreciate their support during the event. Maybe you’ll find someone who also feels ill at ease in these scenarios, and you can be each other’s wing-person. You can set up a plan to check in with one another periodically, or if you want to do the same activities during the party, plan to do them together. You might be surprised to learn how many other people feel awkward at these kinds of professional/social events and would love to have you in their corner as well.
Decide What Will Be Fun For You
And then do it. It helps to know ahead of time what types of activities will be offered at the gathering. I’ve gone to holiday work parties with everything from karaoke, to buffets, to photo booths, to raffles, to acrobatic performances, to casino games, and more. You know yourself best and you know what types of activities you find the most enjoyable. It’s important for you to get something positive out of this party, too, so make sure you do the things that will be fun for you.
Choose a Social Anxiety Goal to Work On
Knowing you have social anxiety is half the battle. Don’t beat yourself up about it or wish you were different. Be compassionate with yourself, but also figure out beforehand how you can stretch yourself a little outside your comfort zone during this event. Doing this will give you a sense of accomplishment and will also help you grow, possibly paving the way for decreased social discomfort in the future. Set your goal ahead of time and then knock it out. Maybe your goal will be to start a conversation with three new people. Maybe you want to practice sitting with the discomfort of natural silence in a conversation. Or maybe you want to get up and sing karaoke in front of all your colleagues. If it’s the last option, are you sure you actually have social anxiety? (Just kidding.)
Don’t Drink to AvoidYour Discomfort
There is nothing wrong, of course, with enjoying some spirits during the holidays. If you have social anxiety, however, you may feel tempted to overindulge in an attempt to numb or reduce your nerves. This can easily backfire, as I’m sure many of us can attest to. CBT therapists have a saying: “Avoid avoidance.” Drinking to to simply enjoy the moment is different from drinking to avoid your uncomfortable emotions. Keep this in mind and if you sense that you want to sip on some bubbly to escape how you’re feeling, try replacing this with a more positive coping skill, such as mindfulness, taking a short break from socializing, or talking to a supportive friend.
My friend (who also happens to be a therapist) introduced me to this one and I love it. She’s an introvert, and unashamed of the fact that for her, social interactions feel more draining than energizing.
So what is an “Asparagus Breaking Point”? Imagine holding a bundle of raw asparagus in both hands, then twisting your hands to break the bundle in half. The asparagus will flex and give up to a certain point, and then it will snap in half. Your Asparagus Breaking Point will be unique to you. It is the point at which you know you have reached your limit and need to start saying your goodbyes and grabbing your coat.
Each person has unique warning signs that tell them they’re approaching their Asparagus Breaking Point. Maybe you’ll start to feel a little punch-drunk, or irritable, shaky or burned out. Maybe you’ve made the rounds and now feel totally exhausted. Know how to tell when your Asparagus Breaking Point is approaching, and honor it.
**Extra note: If you think you might use the Asparagus Breaking Point as an excuse to cut out of the festivities super early (i.e. avoidance), set a minimum time-spent-at-party goal for yourself (an hour, two hours, etc.) and don’t allow yourself to leave before then.
Plan a Recharge Afterwards
So you’ve survived the holiday work party. Not only did you maybe have some…fun? But you also stretched outside of your comfort zone, talked to some new people and (hopefully) enjoyed some delicious free food. Now it’s time to pat yourself on the back with a recharge reward. For you, it may look like going home and spending the rest of the evening with your cats (no judgement). Or listening to your favorite music, watching a show you love, picking up dessert on the way home. Make sure you treat yourself to something nice and give yourself a chance to recharge and recover…before the next big holiday bash.
What are your favorite tips for navigating office holiday parties? Share in the comments below.
But what about the CONTEXT? The context being your anxious brain. Your depressed brain. Your socially phobic brain. The same brain you’ve been living with your entire life?
So I say: think of thought records as a “two-punch” process. The first punch is challenging the content, the second punch is acknowledging the context.
If arguing against the CONTENT of a distorted thought helps you feel better right away (and to be fair, sometimes it does), that’s great.
But if a distorted thought is still feeling true, real, scary, urgent, sticky – as is the case for MANY of us – after completing a thought record…
Then it’s time for part two: to acknowledge the CONTEXT of these thoughts.
You may want to say something like this to yourself:
“Remember, (insert your name here), I have a brain that tends to run anxious/depressed/(insert your description here). Because of this, my brain is of course going to loop this thought and tell me it’s really important/valid/urgent. This doesn’t mean, however, that I have to ACT as thought these thoughts are true or meaningful. I can choose my behaviors, and choose to see these thoughts within the context of how my brain is happens to be engineered. I will not try to run from these thoughts or the feelings they create. Instead, I will sit with them using mindfulness until they pass. They will pass eventually.”
Learning how to directly challenge automatic, distorted thoughts is a powerful tool, and one that takes practice. But people often get stuck at this point because they find it hard to simply believe another thought, even if logically, it makes sense to do so. Then, they feel like they are failing at challenging their thoughts, on top of experiencing all the feelings caused by the distorted thoughts themselves!
It’s understandable to have trouble immediately believing and emotionally buying into an alternative thought. So cut yourself some slack and acknowledge the context, while committing to sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise WITHOUT acting on them.
By doing this, you are building a new muscle that says I can have these thoughts and feelings, but they don’t have the power to control my behaviors. This is extremely powerful, because if you engage in behaviors influenced by distorted thoughts and feelings, you will reinforce said thoughts and feelings.
What I just said is a really important concept, so I’m going to repeat it: If you engage in behaviors influenced by distorted thoughts and feelings, you will reinforce said thoughts and feelings.
A thought record is a major tool in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that guides us, step by step, through the process of challenging distorted, automatic thoughts.
If you’ve been following my recent blog posts, you’ll know that in order to even recognize automatic thoughts as they’re occurring, you first need to practice mindfulness.
You’ll also know that in order break down the distorted thinking patterns within automatic thoughts, you need a basic understanding of cognitive distortions.
Your success in using thought records to challenge distorted, automatic thoughts relies heavily on a strong foundation of mindfulness and understanding cognitive distortions, so if you haven’t read my previous blog posts on these topics, click here, here and here to review them now, BEFORE moving on to today’s post on thought records.
Now for the good stuff! Identify which cognitive distortions are present in these automatic thoughts, and write them down in the Cognitive Distortions column. You may want to refer to the List of Cognitive Distortions to guide you thought this step. For example:
“I’m a failure” = labeling, all or nothing thinking, magnification
“I’m going to get fired” = fortune telling, catastrophizing
“They regret hiring me” = mind reading
Next, you will come up with alternative thoughts to counter and challenge your automatic ones. For people who have a hard time talking to themselves in a nice voice, try to imagine what your best friend or Mister Rogers would say. Alternatively (see what I did there?), you can work from the basis of the cognitive distortions you’ve just identified. Write these in the Alternative Thought column. For example:
“I’m a failure” = Just because I didn’t do so great on one performance review doesn’t mean I’m an failure. It’s not fair to label me as a failure when I have achieved many things and worked hard (maybe citing some examples). It’s just one performance review and there is always room for improvement. In fact, the whole point of these reviews is not for everyone to tell me I’m perfect, but to provide constructive feedback. I’m learning and growing and sometimes there a bumps in the road, but this doesn’t define me.
“I’m going to get fired” = No one said anything about getting fired. Aside from this review, I haven’t received any serious complaints. I can’t predict what will happen in the future, but I have no strong evidence right now to suggest that I will for certain be fired. And if someday I am fired from a job, I will deal with the situation then.
“They regret hiring me” = Did my supervisor specifically say or write this in my review? If not, I cannot presume to know for certain that this is what they are thinking. I cannot read minds (though I’d like to), so I’m not going to automatically assume the most hurtful conclusion without some solid evidence to back it up.
In the final column, Feeling Reappraisal, write any feelings you have in response to these alternative thoughts. If you are still experiencing some of the same feelings you did before, you can write them again, re-ranking their current intensity level. For example:
It is alright if your feelings do not go away completely after finishing a thought record. Look for some change, even a tiny one, and make sure to acknowledge it.
The purpose of thought records and mindfulness is not to erase all negative thoughts from your brain, but to learn how to more easily recognize them when they occur, identify your “favorite” cognitive distortions, and be able to challenge these thoughts with more objective, compassionate ones.
As with everything, practice makes perfect. Sign up for my free Automatic Thought Record template and try to complete at least one thought record a day this week. Let me know how it’s going for you in the comments below!
Sorry, Elliott Smith. I’ve been a huge fan of yours for ages, but in this post I’m going to talk about how our distorted thoughts make us anything but free.
In last week’s post, I introduced the concept of automatic thoughts and explained the CBT principle that our thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to behaviors.
Today, I’m going to discuss cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are irrational, distorted thinking patterns that are often found in automatic thoughts. Just like automatic thoughts, we all have them, and sometimes to an adaptive degree, but when cognitive distortions are extreme, they can cause us more harm that benefit.
There are many kinds of cognitive distortions, but here are the top ones I tend to see in the people I work with.
Take a gander and, as I tell my clients when I give them this list, highlight your personal favorites:
All or Nothing Thinking: Also known as black or white thinking, it involves seeing things in absolute terms. Example: You make a mistake at work and think “I never do anything right. I always find a way to screw up.”
Fortune Telling: Anticipating or expecting that something will turn out a certain way in the future, despite sufficient evidence to support it. Sorry, crystal balls don’t count. Example: “I just know I’m going to get passed up for the promotion this half.”
Shoulds/Musts: Thinking that things should (or should not) be a certain way. Example: “I should be able to solve my problems on my own. I must never make any mistakes.”
Catastrophizing: Focusing on only the worst, most harmful outcomes of a situation and blowing these outcomes out of proportion. Example: “If I don’t finish this project on time, my boss will be mad at me. Then I’ll be put on probation. Then I’ll get fired. I’ll have to move back in with my parents and I’ll be a miserable failure, and everyone will feel like I’ve let them down, including my dog.”
Magnification & Minimization: To magnify is to exaggerate the importance of something, and to minimize is to, well, minimize it. Example of Magnification: “I can’t believe I didn’t catch that typo on my PowerPoint presentation. It’s so embarrassing.” Example of Minimization: “It’s not that big of a deal that I got promoted. Everyone in this department who isn’t a total screw-up did.”
Mind Reading: Believing that you know what others are thinking and feeling despite lack of evidence. “My manager saw the typo on my PowerPoint presentation (see above). She thinks I’m a total idiot now.”
Personalization: Believing that you have control over others’ actions and behaviors. Example: “That guy in HR was so rude to me. Something I did must have rubbed him the wrong way.”
Disqualifying the Positive: Over-focusing on the negative aspects of something while under-focusing on the positive aspects. Example: getting a very positive performance review, but agonizing over the one criticism or area for improvement identified while minimizing all the positive feedback you received.
Labeling: Making a defining judgement about yourself or someone else as a whole, rather than focusing on specific behaviors. Example: “I felt too intimidated to send my meal back at the restaurant, even though the food was cold. I’m such a pushover.”
Overgeneralization: Making sweeping statements or interpretations about something based on only one or a few events. “I didn’t get the job I applied for. No one wants to hire me.”
Recognize your thinking in any of these?
If you are like most of my readers and struggle with anxiety or self-esteem issues, you will likely experience cognitive distortions that lend themselves to negative self-judgement, self-blame, and viewing yourself and/or circumstances in an unfavorable light.
But I do want to point out that the pendulum swings both ways. Sometimes cognitive distortions look like: “I always do everything right!” (All or Nothing Thinking), “I make more money, so I’m a winner and that guy’s a loser.” (Labeling) “My manager thinks that my presentation is the best he’s ever seen in his life.” (Mind Reading)
You can see how these kinds of cognitive distortions, though on the other end of the spectrum, can also be maladaptive.
Either way you swing it, these types of automatic thoughts are creating a distorted version of reality.
Fortunately, are tools you can use (in addition to mindfulness, of course) that can help you challenge your automatic thoughts. I’m going to be sharing one of them next week, allowing you to put the information from this week’s and last week’s post into action. Make sure to join my mailing list so you get notified right away.
In the meantime, I want you to spend this week practicing mindfulness – using myfree guided mindfulness meditation! – in order to notice when cognitive distortions are making appearances in your thoughts.
So which cognitive distortions do you just love to use? We all have our Old Faithfuls. Feel free to share yours in the comments below!
Therapy (CBT) operates on the general principle that our thoughts influence our
feelings, and our feelings influence our behaviors.
Thoughts –> Feelings –> Behaviors
For example, a person could have the thought: “I suck at my job.”
This creates feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness.
Now in this negative emotional state, in the person may engage in harmful behaviors, such as drinking too much, watching Netflix for hours and hours, or procrastinating on a project they need to finish. In this case, the thoughts created feelings that led to behaviors – and now the cycle will repeat.
Automatic thoughts are a major concept in CBT, and they are what they sound like: thoughts, ideas and images that pop into our minds without conscious intent.
We all experience automatic thoughts. I like to tell my clients that our minds are wired first and foremost to help us survive and keep us safe from both real and perceived threats. This is why, in certain cases, automatic thoughts can benefit us. Consider the following example:
You’re walking down Market Street in SF and you see a lion roaming around in the bus lane. In response, some version of the following automatic thoughts may pop into your mind:
“I’m not safe. I need to get out of here!”
Because thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to behaviors, the aforementioned thoughts may trigger feelings of fear and panic, which then lead you to a behavior involving getting away from that big, scary lion as quickly as possible. In this example, your automatic thoughts are serving a positive purpose: helping you to stay safe and survive.
In other cases, however, automatic thoughts can do more harm than good. We find this to be the case more commonly for people who experience anxiety and depression. Here are two more examples to chew on:
A person who feels depressed may experience automatic thoughts such as: “I’m worthless. No one cares about me. I can’t handle feeling this way and I’m going to feel this way forever.”
A person who feels anxious may interpret their boss asking them to meet ASAP as a threat, thinking: “She’s upset with me. I did something wrong. I’m going to get fired today, I know it.”
These types of automatic thoughts can be harmful and they may also be untrue. They can create feeling states leading to behaviors that can end up causing more harm than good.
If you are reading this
and recognize that you struggle with harmful automatic thoughts, you are
probably wondering what you can do to break the cycle.
If so, you are in the right place, because in the coming weeks, I will be talking about how to recognize and challenge automatic thoughts. And if you’re ready to get started, I already have your first step:
Build Your Mindfulness Muscles
Your first step in learning how to recognize and challenge your automatic thoughts is to begin cultivating a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness encourages us to wake up to the present moment, allowing it to exist as it is with acceptance, curiosity and non-judgment. (Read more about mindfulness here.) By cultivating a mindfulness practice, you will begin to notice and become more aware of your automatic thoughts as they occur.
After all, if you
aren’t aware of your automatic thoughts, you cannot challenge them. As we’ve
established, they’re called automatic thoughts because…they’re automatic! Most
of the time, we don’t even recognize we’re having them.
This first exercise in breaking the cycle is so important and will set you up for success moving forward. Once the foundational mindfulness muscles have been strengthened, you can will be ready to learn how to challenge and interrupt harmful, unhelpful automatic thoughts.
If you’re new to mindfulness, a guided mindfulness meditation can be a great place to start. For that reason, I’ve created a FREE mindfulness meditation just for you!
In last week’s post, I shared about my own experience writing a 165-page dissertation in graduate school, and talked about some of the common pitfalls students face when jumping this huge academic hurdle. It’s such a stressful, anxiety-provoking, long-term challenge, and everyone responds to the pressure in different ways. In fact, many people…don’t finish their theses or dissertations altogether.
It’s sad (and scary) but true. I have heard horror stories of students who got kicked out of their programs because they took too long to finish. And I know people who never completed their thesis/dissertation at all, even when it was the very last thing standing in the way of getting their degree.
I never want you to have to go through this.
Which is why in today’s post, I am sharing the top ten strategies that helped me finish my own dissertation on schedule. I truly believe that you can do this, and I want you to succeed!
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.
Strategy #1: Do a mindfulness meditation before sitting down to work
Cultivating a mindfulness practice while completing a thesis or dissertation can be hugely beneficial. Mindfulness can help us feel less harried, rushed, panicked and reactive – and more present, alert, grounded and focused instead. Doing a brief mindfulness meditation before you sit down to write, research, read, or take notes can change the way you show up and move through the writing process. You can learn more about the definition and benefits of mindfulness here.
Interested but not sure where to start? Not to worry, because I’ve created a FREE guided mindfulness meditation for you (i.e. someone who is working on their thesis or dissertation). This eight minute meditation can help to slow you down, get grounded, and have you showing up with presence and intention for the work you need to get started on today. And it’s free!
Strategy #2: Work with a dissertation chair who matches your productivity style
This is one of the early choices you can make that will set you up for longer-term success. Before you even consider choosing a dissertation/thesis chair, take some time to reflect on your own about the times you have managed to be productive in the past. For example, I work well with lots of small deadlines, and my number one goal for my dissertation was to finish on time. You may like a certain professor’s personality and have great rapport, but that doesn’t mean they are going to give you the type of guidance you need to finish your project. Ask yourself: Do I work best when someone provides me with basic guidelines and lets me take the lead from there? Do I need a chair who stays on top of me and isn’t afraid to apply pressure when needed?
At my graduate school, we had the opportunity to interview and meet with all the prospective dissertation chairs, then submit our top three choices. Whether your school sets this up for you, or you take this step on your own, make sure to ask prospective chairs about how they like to work. When my dissertation chair told me: “I’m focused on getting students to that finish line with consistent deadlines and progress” I knew I was in the right place.
Strategy #3: Treat it just like any other paper
I am not saying you shouldn’t take this project seriously – it is serious! But don’t get caught up in the hype, hysteria and mythology that tends to surround The Thesis or The Dissertation. Early on, one of my classmates said to me: “People tend to psych themselves out about this project, but at the end of the day, it’s just another school paper.” When I found myself stressed out, overwhelmed, or blowing the dissertation out of proportion in my head, I remembered what she said, and it helped me keep things in perspective.
Additionally, don’t try to save the world with your thesis or dissertation. Don’t tell yourself this paper is going to change the course of your life or career, make you famous, end world hunger and put a stop to war. If it does, that’s just frosting on the cake! But most likely, your thesis or dissertation is just going to be another volume on the shelf at your school’s library that maybe a few people will ever open. That may sound depressing to some of you, but it’s also liberating to recognize that this one project isn’t going to make or break your entire life.
Strategy #4: Trick yourself into writing
This is one of my favorite techniques. If you’re paralyzed with anxiety, having trouble getting started, thinking about how “big” this is and how you don’t see any end in sight, try telling yourself you are only going to sit at the computer for 30 minutes, working on one thesis-or-dissertation-related task. Set a timer and know that when it goes off, you are done for the day. Completely. Done.
What tended to happen when I used this technique was that once I got to the 30 minute mark, I had started to hit my “groove” and…I didn’t want to stop. My brain had acclimated to the work, and I’d built up just enough momentum to keep going. So I would reset my timer and go another round. And another. Sometimes I would sit down to work for only 30 minutes and end up working for a few hours. Newton’s Law of Inertia says that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. If you can “trick” yourself into getting into some small motion, inertia tends to take over. I finished the bulk of my dissertation using this technique.
Some of you may only need to set that timer for 15 minutes, and some will do better with 45 minutes to an hour. The amount of time that works best will be different for each of you, so experiment with different quantities.
Strategy #5: Use your favorite positive reinforcement while you work
Don’t ask me why, but there was something about chewing Trident Tropical Twist Sugar Free gum while blasting Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA on repeat that kept me going during many a dissertation work-session. For you, it may be a different tasty treat, song, aromatherapy, a certain picture on the wall above your work space, a grounding object, or something else. Choose something that works for you.
PS: Party in the USA still gets me into an energized and productive mindset to this day, and I’m not embarrassed to admit it!
Strategy #6: Little Acorns
If you haven’t heard the song Little Acorns by The White Stripes, go and have a listen now, because it’s going to be your anthem. This song reminds us of the power of breaking big tasks into little pieces and checking them off your list, one at a time. A common problem I see with the thesis or dissertation is paralysis caused by overwhelm. If you try to run face-first into this huge task, you will only wind up with…a smashed face. And nobody likes a smashed faced.
Instead, try to slide into the work you have to do. For example, my dissertation chair had us do Literature Logs in preparation for writing our Literature Reviews. We compiled all the articles we were going to use in our Literature Review sections, and created “cheat sheets” for each of them, including the name of article, author(s), location, summary, notes, etc. In the beginning, she had us complete around five literature logs per week. Once we’d finished about twenty to twenty-five Lit Logs, we started working them into first drafts of our Literature Reviews. After a semester of these steady and consistent little acorns, I had completed an entire draft of my Introduction and Lit Review, and was ready to move on to my Methods section.
Strategy #7: Set up a buddy system
I had a friend from grad school and we were kindred, introverted, anxious spirits. During the second year of our program (which by all accounts was the most difficult), we would get together at the coffee shop at Borders (remember those?) and study together for hours.
Like choosing a dissertation chair that matches your productivity style, it helps to find a study buddy who meshes with you. You don’t want to choose someone who will, despite their best intentions, drive you to distraction. You need to be able to work productively alongside one another and not get too caught up in comparison, commiseration or unhealthy competition.
Your study buddy doesn’t even need to be in your same type of program – in fact, it could be helpful in some respects to choose someone who is pursuing a different track, so you are less tempted to fall prey to comparison or competition of any kind. The key here is to provide and receive accountability for staying on top of your individual goals.
Strategy #8: Motivate yourself with little (and big) rewards
This one is pretty straightforward:
Set a writing goal for one day. Use Tips #4 , #5 & #9 (the latter if you dare) to help yourself meet said goal. But before you even sit down to work, figure out a reward you will give yourself after you’ve triumphed for the day. Examples of Little Rewards may include things like dinner with a friend, your favorite dessert, watching a movie or a show you love, buying yourself a small, inexpensive gift.
Big Rewards are for the milestones, such as completing your proposal orals, defending your dissertation/thesis, or even…turning in your dissertation or thesis because it’s DONE! Of course, you will have to decide what a “big reward” looks like for you.
Strategy #9: Self-apply a diabolically evil behavioral intervention
Although I haven’t used this intervention myself (yet), I can’t imagine it wouldn’t produce some results. This one is not one for the faint of heart, so you might want to pull out this strategy if you’re really having trouble getting moving. Follow these steps:
Think of your most abhorred, despised political figure, cause or candidate.
Now, get an envelope and address it to their fundraising or donation headquarters. Put a stamp on the envelope and include your return address.
For every day you don’t meet your goal in terms of time spent actively working on your dissertation/thesis, put $10 in the envelope.
At the end of the month, seal and mail the envelope, money included.
Begin again on the first of next month. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I told you it was diabolical!
If $10 doesn’t feel like enough to have some skin in the game (we are talking about broke grad and college students here), make it $20. Or $50. Or whatever number makes you cringe.
If this intervention works and your envelope is empty by the end of the month, give yourself a huge pat on the back – you were able to channel your negative feelings into something positive and productive! You could always celebrate by taking some of the money you might have sent to the political figure/campaign/cause in question and donating it to a cause you love and believe in.
Or, you know, just put it in savings.
Strategy #10: When It’s Time, Throw Some Money at the Problem and Get Rid of It
Now, I am not talking about paying someone to write your dissertation for you, although I do understand how that would be tempting!
There were various points during the completion of my own dissertation when I would have been stuck for quite awhile if I had not decided to spend some money and bring in some help.
What do I mean? Although I have taken statistics three times in my academic life (AP Stats in high school, Stats in college, and Stats in grad school), I hate math and I did not trust my abilities strongly enough to run the numbers on the data I had collected for my dissertation. I could have tried to “figure it out” on the fly and probably driven myself bonkers in the process, but instead I hired some advanced graduate students in my program to help me out. They crunched my numbers, got me the information I needed, and I was able to piece together the rest.
Then came the part where I had to rewrite my entire dissertation in APA format after I’d defended it. I’d done my best to stick to APA format up to that point, but I’m not someone who is great with a ton of nitty gritty details. Fortunately, my colleague connected me with an amazing editor who was able to clean up and format my entire dissertation quickly and at an affordable price.
You may want to go to the administration at your school to see if they have a list of people who can help you with things like statistics and editing. Or you can search the database on the Association for Support of Graduate Students (ASGS). This site is an incredible resource!
So there you have it! I hope these ten strategies are helpful for you. They certainly helped me a lot, but everyone is different, so let me know some of the strategies that have worked for you in the comments.
Remember that no matter how demoralized, scared, anxious you may feel right now, I believe that you can do this. In the not-too-distant-future, your dissertation or thesis will be in the rear-view mirror of your life, and you’ll be able to think to yourself: “Remember when I had to do that? So glad it’s behind me!”
Ten years ago, I found myself sitting in a small room with my dissertation chair and five classmates, each of us practically squirming in our plastic seats with anticipation and anxiety.
It was our very first meeting, and it was time for us to go around the room and tell everyone about our intended dissertation topics. One by one we took the plunge, until each of us had shared and given feedback on our respective ideas.
Fortunately, my chair and everyone in my dissertation cluster was super supportive of one another, but by the end of that meeting, all our nerves were fried, and it was clear that one question weighed on all our minds:
This is an e-nor-mous project. How on earth am I going to write this thing?
Looking back on the experience, I will say that that emotionally, it was a tough, TOUGH process. There was so much ongoing pressure, anticipation, worrying – and the entire project from start to finish took just under three years.
If you are currently working on a thesis or dissertation, trust me when I say: I feel your pain! This is huge and cumbersome project, and the long-term stress impacts everyone differently. Some procrastinate – I have met people who have taken a decade to finish their thesis/dissertation. Someone else I know became so distressed during the process that their doctor recommended they take antidepressants.
During my own dissertation writing process, I relied a lot on the support of friends and family. I was fortunate to have a fantastic dissertation chair and encouraging peers – that was a huge benefit.
But I really wished I had had a tool specifically tailored to all the thoughts and feelings that were influencing my emotional state in relation to this type of project, particularly related to all the work I knew I had to do, and the many fears I had about getting started.
Writing a thesis or dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. In last week’s post, I explained the concept of mindfulness and talked about the power it has to help us show up and be fully present in our lives. Who wouldn’t want to feel more focused, more present, more alert, more grounded…instead of worrying, angsting, rushing from beginning to end? Doing a brief mindfulness meditation before you sit down to write, research, read, or take notes can change the way you show up and move through the writing process.
That is why I’ve created a FREE guided mindfulness meditation for you that is specifically geared towards helping you start working on your dissertation or thesis. This eight minute mindfulness meditation can help to slow you down, get grounded, and have you showing up with presence and intention for the work you need to get started on today. And It’s 100 percent free!
So how did everything turn out?
I finished my dissertation (and degree) on schedule, all while juggling a full course load, two part-time traineeships followed by a full time internship, tons of additional papers, clinical notes, presentations and assignments, and a personal life.
If you’re reading this, I know you’re going through a challenging time in your life. I also believe that no matter how overwhelmed or discouraged you may feel right now, you can finish your thesis/dissertation!
Because I want you to succeed, this free guided meditation is set up to kick off a two-part blog series in which I’ll share the top writing and motivation strategies that helped me finish my own 165-page dissertation on schedule. All of this information will be on my blog in the coming weeks, so be sure to subscribe to get notification emails to hear ALL of my tips and strategies. Let’s get you to the finish line!