Beans, greens and dreams

Sandwiched between the Thanksgiving turkey, the Christmas duck, and the New Year’s black eyed peas and mustard greens (I’m southern, okay?) are the reflections on all the meaningful things we hoped to accomplish this year.

Did you do all the things you wanted to do this year? Did you finally pull any longstanding levers in your life this year?

If you did, congratulations!

Every step forward is a step forward. (You can totally feel free to tweet that 😜)

If not, I have good news. You get another shot at it this next year.

That’s the beautiful thing about waking up. Every day presents another opportunity to keep going.

But before you start swearing allegiance to all that is holy and just on your new goals for next year, ask yourself this question:

If I woke up tomorrow and my biggest problem in life was miraculously resolved, and everything was exactly how I wanted it, what would that look like?

Take a minute if you need it. [Insert “Jeopardy” music here]

Can you even answer that? Can you picture it? Can you feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh Lord? (sorry…)

Most likely it’s difficult, which is weird, right?

Part of the problems we run into in achieving our goals and dreams is that sometimes we really don’t know what the heck we want. Not in a specific sense, anyway.

We know we want to be healthy, and successful, and witty and fun, and hopefully we want to have a positive impact on others.

But when we drill down on those things, our focus evaporates into a host of short-term stuff that’s easy to give up on. Like, we give up by February!

And we don’t always see how those short-term goals play into our larger efforts.

So we just stop or worse, get distracted by other stuff that makes us feel like we’re still moving.

Behold the miracle.

The aforementioned block quoted question is called the Miracle Question. It’s a key part of a therapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).

SFBT is like it sounds. It’s focused on finding workable solutions to problems, and it’s a short-term therapy.

You didn’t need me to tell you that.

Also, SFBT only focuses on your past in the sense that it’s useful to your future. What has worked before to get you where you wanted to go?

So SFBT is super future focused.

The miracle question helps clients try to picture their life and their future without their problems so they can come up with useful goals to start marching towards.

Easy enough.

Not really.

We talk about how great it would be to have all our problems go away, but then we have a hard time imagining just what our life might look like without them.

We tend to become so fixated on what’s not working that we don’t really know what it could look like when it actually is working.

The best part is that you know what you want (you do), and you know what works for you. You just have to sit still long enough to think it through.

So as the beans and greens are simmering in that delicious, bacony cocktail, I ask you:

If you could have what you want tomorrow, with no roadblocks and no limitations on your potential, what would that look like? What would you do then that you’re not doing now?

Chew on that over the next couple of weeks during the Hallmark movies, carbohydrate comas and ballgames.

Write it down.

Draw it.

Tell it to a trusted friend, or a complete stranger (who are they gonna tell?)

Visualize it. Daydream about it.

Put it on your grownup Christmas list.

Whatever you do to make things feel real to you.

Then you’ll have some good data to start thinking about creating meaningful new goals.



This is gratitude

Hopefully you live with a sense of gratitude all year round. But at Thanksgiving you’re allowed to include some pie with it. Yesss!

Gratitude may cloak itself in delicious, carb-laden gravies and desserts once a year, but it gets top billing in mental health pretty much all the time.

Because you can’t make real change unless you first acknowledge what you already have.

I’ll go so far as to say that the practice of gratitude should be annexed as a full-fledged member of the anxiety and depression toolkit.

It’s that powerful.

Gratitude is more than being grateful. 

When I was a kid my mom used to tell me that I should be grateful for what I have because so many others are going without right now, even as we speak. 👀

I remember feeling a little guilty enjoying my mom’s delicious banana pudding with the name-brand Nilla Wafers in it because somewhere else in the world someone was wishing they could have some, and I had it just because it was a Wednesday.

No doubt your mom said the exact same thing. She probably heard it from her mom, who most likely went through The Great Depression and knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Well, at least I’m not that guy.” This is typically how we view gratitude.

But gratitude is more than just being grateful that you have more than others. It’s appreciation for what you’ve been given and a desire to share with others out of that gratitude.

Gratitude is a discipline that can take your focus off of your needs and place it squarely on what you can do for others.

And like any other discipline, gratitude can be practiced, developed, ritualized, taught and shared.

How do you “practice” gratitude? 

A few years ago Oprah Winfrey shared with her ginormous audience her daily practice of writing in a gratitude journal. Like almost everything Oprah endorses, the idea of capturing daily reminders of the goodness in our lives took off like a truant firecracker.

It’s a good thing (I’m now clearly mixing my media tycoons).

Gratitude journals are indeed a tangible way to visualize the things we’re grateful for. And it’s something I recommend to people struggling with depression because it reframes your focus off of so many negative thoughts.

But the practice of gratitude really takes off when you realize that not only can you capture the good things on paper, but you also can take specific actions to thank others who have helped you, or pay it forward in a similar way.

  • You can write a thank you note (with old fashioned pen and paper) to a coworker who helped you solve a thorny problem at 3pm on Friday. There is something special about getting a real card at work.
  • You can text an encouraging message to a friend who has helped you through some stuff. You never know when others may need that little notification to pop up on a tough day.
  • You can write a letter (again, pen & paper) to a loved one who has meant so much to you. I guarantee they will keep that letter until the day they die.
  • You can give a little financial support to a cause or organization that has helped you. You don’t have to give enough to trigger a press release or a naming opportunity; just enough to show that you appreciate the work on your behalf.
  • You can buy someone’s lunch just because you are grateful to have had enough food on your table for most of your life.

Just spitballing a few ideas here. You can DIY your own.

Try this at least once a day, in some way, big or small. Get creative.

Now you’ve taken action to help others, instead of just letting the gratitude serve you and making you feel better about you.

Gratitude is helping you change your behaviors. Good job! 👍

Gratitude has some science on its side. 

A recent study out of Berkeley showed the power of this kind of actionable gratitude.

Researchers studied three groups of 300 adults, who were mostly college students seeking counseling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

In addition to counseling, one group wrote one gratitude letter each week to another person. (Gratitude letters describe what someone did for you and how it affected your life.) They kept up this practice for three weeks.

The second group received counseling and wrote about their negative thoughts, feelings and experiences.

The third group just received counseling.

More than four weeks after the writing exercise ended, the first group reported improved and continued mental health, as compared to the other two groups. Interestingly enough, only 23% of the participants in this group actually sent their letter. (Personally, I’ve always been terrible at this part.)

This positive effect lasted an additional eight weeks (this brings us to 12 weeks post-writing exercise, for you math geniuses).

The writers felt better long after the exercise was over, and they most likely improved the life of someone else with their letters.

Writers for the win! 🍾

Gratitude is a brain changer. 

Gratitude appears to be a reward loop. The more you practice it, the more you want to do for others, which makes you feel good, which makes you practice it more, which makes it… you get it.

Inside your head, your brain is registering this loop as a dopamine rush. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter in the brain.

When you experience that rush through a pleasurable activity, your brain says, “Yes, that was very good. I would like plenty more of that, please and thank you.”

Your brain then provides a deeper pathway for that dopamine to make sure the next time it comes through it can capture it better. It’s like little neurological high-fives going on in your head.

More importantly, those deeper pathways mean that your brain is adapting to accommodate the pleasurable activity, which means your brain is physically changing.

If you’re doing illegal drugs, this is not good news. But if you’re conditioning your brain to recognize and express gratitude, then this is pretty great news.

Your brain is helping you create a habit, and good habits create good practices.

Now you have a gratitude mindset. 💃🏻

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Keep your cool this holiday season


The holidays are here, y’all.

The best thing about the holidays is spending time with family. But sometimes being around our families brings out some old patterns and anxieties we thought we had dealt with.

Unless you’re in a Christmas Hallmark movie, you might find yourself slipping back into some feelings you don’t like when you get around family.

Nobody pushes your buttons like your family, am I right?

And you know before you ever get there who pushes your buttons the most, don’t you?

Well, you can’t control your family.


But you can control how you react and what (and who) you’ll allow to mess with you.

You can set some boundaries so you can enjoy your holiday experience. Cuz you deserve that.

Here are a few ideas.

1) Have a plan.

Decide ahead of time how long you’ll stay at a family event. You know yourself and you know the point where you start getting too snarky with Aunt Martha.

There’s no rule that says you have to stay the whole time. Set a timeframe you’re comfortable with and that will let you pull the most good out of the experience.

Then you can walk away feeling good about your time.

Now, don’t announce it when you get there that you’re only staying two hours. And please don’t make a big deal about it when you’re ready to go (even though others may make a big deal about it).

You’re a grown up, you don’t owe them an explanation. Just a “thank you” for a wonderful time.

Part of having good boundaries is knowing how to make decisions for yoself without explaining yoself.

If you’re staying with family and can’t just leave, well, admittedly this is harder to do. Determine where you can retreat to when you’re ready for some space.

Bedroom, bathroom, that little space under the stairs. Whatevs.

2) Pick your battles.

Try, try, try to set aside your need to be right about anything or everything and whatever’s in between.

You probably already have a good idea of what’s going to get under your skin. Now, that doesn’t mean you allow people to be truly hurtful. That’s not what I’m saying.

But do you really need to answer and debate every annoying thing that bothers you? You’re not five anymore.

For some reason it’s so easy to feel defensive around our family. We want to answer for all the reasons why we’re doing this or not doing that.

When you’re ready to go there, hit that pause button and simply ask yourself this: Does my impending response advance the relationship in any meaningful way? (I would actually recommend this technique in most of your interactions, not just during the holidays.)

If that sounds like “letting some things roll off your back,” then you get an A because that’s kinda what it is.

Let it go!

After all, the holidays have such a short timeframe compared to the rest of your year.

You can be right when you get home.

3) Focus on what you do enjoy.

If it’s the food, the family bonfire, the weird neighbor, or that cool cousin you don’t get to see too much, then focus on those things.

Be proactive and engage the people and things you know you will enjoy. This will help the annoying things feel more like just noise than the main event.

Look around you and focus on the joy that’s already there.

4) Move around.

I know everybody says this but for crying out loud, get some exercise in all this somewhere!

Not after Thanksgiving dinner necessarily, you know, because of the carb coma.

But take some time for a walk or a bike ride, pull out your old pogo sticks from the garage, whatever.

It will help reset your focus a bit and get some blood flowing to the frontal lobe of your brain.

This is the region of the brain that controls your planning and responses, and it will keep you from going off on Aunt Martha.

Or you could bring that favorite cousin on a walk so you can talk about everybody else.

5) Remember, it’s not about you.

We all get triggered a bit by being in familiar surroundings, and we all revert back to patterns that we may not like.

The best thing about the holidays is the focus on being together and finding joy in spite of our differences and past annoyances.

Make the holidays about serving the needs of others and not yourself.

Focus on what you can bring to the table to make your holidays enjoyable.

The faith of resilience

I’m fascinated with the concept of resilience.

Resilience is like that Jell-O salad at Thanksgiving. No one can define it, really, and everybody makes it a different way.

And it’s almost never sexy.

But it plays a key role at many of our holiday tables. There it is all mixed in on our plates with the big players like turkey and gravy and marshmallowed yams.

Without even a small amount of resilience, it’s difficult to realize success or just get on in life.

People can be remarkably resilient.

I talk to some who it would seem have every right to lay down and die, to give up on any possible future.

Some people right under our noses have endured unspeakable atrocities.

I listen to kids describe coping skills they’ve used to get around some of the things that happened to them. Those skills aren’t always appropriate in our eyes, and we try hard to help them “fix” those behaviors.

But you’ve got to give them some props for trying to find resources to help them deal.

Even at a young age kids seem to know they can choose to find ways around stuff.

Is resilience instinctual then, or a skill you can build?

So many of the choices we make — to survive, to keep going, to move forward (or not) — are driven by what we believe about ourselves.

And those beliefs develop from our environment, what our early caretakers modeled for us, and what we choose to pay attention to even now.

Hard-wired beliefs are super hard to change.

It takes disciplined, focused work to choose not to believe what you already believe.

And it may take a long time to see change. You have to make a choice every day to believe there’s a way forward, whether it’s visible or not.

Maybe resilience is less like Jell-O and more like faith.