I became a Psychologist in order to figure myself out, and my family. I imagine that’s what gets a lot of people’s foot in the psychology-door, initially.
You wonder things like, “Why am I (or other people), so screwed up? Why can’t I get myself together? Why do I sabotage my successes? Why do I self-harm when I know it’s not good for me? Why do I turn away from people and assume they’re better off without me? Why do I get obsessed with certain thoughts, worries, memories, fears, and not seem to be able to “let them go”? Why do I waste so much time on trivialities? Why do I still beat myself up for things I did, or forgot to do, said, or forgot to say, decades ago, and still, daily, feel as guilty about them as though they happened yesterday? Why do I get so little sleep? Why do I ghost people, especially when it’s clear they like me? Why do I start projects and not finish them? Why do I read so much about happiness and wellness, but I’m still unhappy? Why is my memory of childhood so spotty? Why do I yearn to be in a relationship, but then want distance once I’m in one? Why do I assume people don’t like me, and if it appears they do, assume they are being fake, or deluding themselves somehow? Why don’t negative consequences change my behaviour? Why do immediate rewards seem to be the only thing that matter? Why do I believe things like “people are beautiful”, “humans are innately good”, “anyone can change”, “you are more important to others than you likely realize”, etc., but then also believe that somehow, I, alone, am exempt from these truths? Why has it so often seemed like my existence is some kind of error, that I’m here by mistake? Why have my best friends over the years often told me that they don’t feel like they really know me?”
And of course, relationships. The number of “why” questions that come up as one sees relationships form, solidify, then dissolve, over and over and over, is near-infinite.
As you go through life and learn more about yourself, you may at some point decide to really take your well-being into your own hands, and DO SOMETHING about it. Some people succeed spectacularly in this quest, or at least it seems that way on Instagram. But no small number of us try, and try, and try, year after year, with our self-improvement goals and checklists and resolutions and vision boards and buddy systems and therapists and support groups and exercise programs and gurus and mindfulness leaders and spiritual books and self-help trends. And the next year, we’re still at it. Then the next decade.
I was cleaning out some old boxes a while back, and came across the day-planner calendars that I started keeping around the end of high school. Month after month, year after year, and yes, decade after decade, lists of goals, action plans, promises, vows, systems, you name it, I tried it, wrote down my intentions, even sometimes tracked my progress.
It was…humbling, to encounter my former selves in this way, looking in stark detail at their visions and dreams and hopes for the future, and now, living in that future knowing that the vast majority of those plans never came to pass. And sure, you can chalk some things up to “life getting in the way”, or maturing and realizing your goals for yourself were changing. Etc.. But no. Most of it is a result of simply not following through sufficiently enough, with enough discipline, for enough time, to reap the rewards.
I know I’m not alone in this. This is why gyms get you to sign up for a year up front, because they know that the majority of people crowding in there at the beginning of January, are going to be back on their couches by Valentine’s Day, and probably sooner. This is why bookstores have entire SECTIONS devoted to wellness and positive habit formation and “being your best self”, with every single one promising that THIS TIME, you will succeed. But if people normally, reliably succeeded at these things, then magazine covers would change over the decades, rather than printing the same clichéd advice for achieving the “best sex”, “best year”, “best body”, “best self”. Ever. The allure of The Promise is awesome and exciting. Whereas The Reality is a lot…different.
So what happens next? Well, according to the Positivity/Motivation script, you need discipline. Self-proclaimed and slickly marketed wannabe-gurus tell you to stand up straight with your shoulders back, stop saying things that make you weak, make your bed, lift the heaviest weight you can carry every day, and in short, “sort yourself out”, light a fire under your ass, and charge into the Battle for Your Better Self like a goddamned hero. If you’re not doing that, then it’s because you are weak, you are choosing to be weak, you are refusing to take responsibility for yourself, you haven’t attached yourself to something meaningful, you’re just whining and feeling sorry for yourself rather than embracing your limitless potential and getting to work on making your life better.
The solution, therefore, is easy — just stop being lazy; get clarified about your goals, put them right in front of you, get a vision for your life, find out what you really want and who you really are. Jordan Peterson says you should set your gaze upon a star, metaphorically speaking, just like Disney tells us to. And then, like Nike tells us, Just Do It. And like L’Oréal tells us, it’s Because You’re Worth It. And then, like Anthony Robbins tells us, we can unleash The Giant Within. And then, we fucking SLAY.
But if you do these things, and then you end up back in the same place, after yet another round of hope-filled, determination-filled, grit-filled effort at improving yourself, then what?
Well, then you tell yourself you didn’t try hard enough, stick to it long enough, have enough discipline, use the right system, get the right help, or maybe you weren’t honest enough with yourself in the first place, and you weren’t chasing the right goals.
So you do it all over again.
If this Self-Improvement Treadmill sounds familiar to you, then high-five my brother/sister! You’re not alone.
In fact, lots of people hold this “sort yourself out” mentality. I encountered it, very strongly, in my workplace, which is kind of stunning given that my workplace was the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto, filled with people who spent their lives studying what makes humans tick, and presumably therefore, also filled with people who understand what goes wrong when the “ticking” breaks down. Surely, if you’re going to get help and understanding from any employer, it would be a bunch of Psychologists, no?
For me, there was a period of a few years when some major life stresses converged and, as you might say, I was “going through a hard time.” My performance suffered at work as a result, and some of my long-standing weaknesses, such as being organizationally challenged, got somewhat worse. I ran into some disciplinary warnings, which in part at least, were deserved. (The story is much more complicated than this, and would involve exposing institutional corruption very high up in the university. But those parts aren’t really relevant here.) So I sought help.
I went to the Employee Assistance Program, to connect with counselors. I saw two. One of them was so outdated in their knowledge of psychology, it was….sad. I mean, come on, if you’re going to offer therapy, at least stay updated on how therapy has evolved in the past several decades. The second person was so bored at her job that she fell asleep in our first 45-minute session while discussing childhood abuse. Then again in our second one. So I stopped going.
I went to my boss in the Department and explained some of the convergent stresses that had reactivated for me some long-buried trauma stuff, and as a result I was struggling with dissociative episodes that were increasing in frequency, and left me often confused as to what day it was and what I was supposed to be doing. I oscillated between being “on”, and being totally vacant. Hours would pass with me having virtually no awareness of what I was doing in that time. It was…..weird. The department’s response was to threaten further disciplinary action.
So I asked for a mentor, someone in the department with some seniority who I could meet with occasionally and get some pragmatic help on the organizational stuff. I was told I should be the one mentoring people, given my number of years in the position. So, no mentor for me.
But the department said they would help with resources. I said I needed trauma-informed therapy or workshops that are designed for people with dissociative experiences. Instead, I was told to go to a workshop on time management, and another on goal-setting or something like that, because after all, this was a “discipline” issue. I explained to my boss that this was psychologically nonsensical, and that if you take someone whose performance is suffering because of trauma-based dissociation, and you put them into a positive/motivation-based program, you are very likely going to achieve nothing except to further perpetuate the internalization of trauma stuff that is the root cause of it all in the first place. It fell on deaf ears with this very successful Psychology researcher, and my refusal to go to this poorly-conceived workshop/program was taken as further “evidence” that I was not trying hard enough.
I took a mental health leave. When I came back, I asked to be given some time to ease back into the rush of things. Instead, I was given the heaviest workload of my entire career, more courses to teach, plus more committee work than I had yet done in any one semester. It was clear that there were certain people in the administration who had been working for quite a few years at that point to get me out of the department, for reasons irrelevant to my performance but related to people’s feelings toward an ex-relationship partner, and instead of allowing me at least to avoid working closely with those people while I got my feet under me again, I was assigned to multiple committees, with multiple of them on each one. To say the “social environment” was unsupportive would be a drastic understatement.
For my annual report, I wrote out quite honestly, making myself vulnerable, noting how I had been struggling, how it had interfered with my projects, and what I was doing to diversify my skills in order to take my teaching and student engagement in a somewhat different direction. I was honest about the fact that my father was dying (actually, at that point, he had just died days before), after a long cancer battle, how my marriage had just evaporated shortly after the wedding, leaving me in profound shock and grief, and how yes, it was a tough year. Nevertheless, I had taught my classes to the best of my ability, and was still working on improving myself and my workplace performance.
So I got a zero on my performance evaluation for that year. Zero. Like, if you give a student a “zero” in a course, that means they literally did nothing. They got not a single question right; they handed in not a single assignment. And if there’s a part of their grade for participation, they didn’t show up for a single class or say a single word. Zero means….you did nothing. At the end of this “performance review”, my boss so unbelievably unkindly wrote “I hope you’re proud of everything you accomplished this year.”
The dissociative episodes got worse. I think my teaching, in the classroom, was still good. But I’m not even sure about that. Everything was so foggy and disconnected, it was like trying to read a book filtered through a kaleidoscope. My ability to remember things started to suffer so much I found it difficult to mark student papers, because I couldn’t hold enough information in my mind to track what that they were saying. I had a semester end where I gave no feedback to students for their papers. I told myself I would work on it over the Christmas holidays and make up for it with great feedback and detailed comments. And I tried. I put dozens and dozens and dozens of hours into it. And it was garbage. I would work through papers, look at my comments afterwards, and have no ability whatsoever to discern whether what I was saying actually made sense and addressed anything in the actual paper. I couldn’t tell good papers from poor ones anymore. Everything seemed like it should get an A, because everything was more complex than I was able to track.
(An aside — I still feel terrible about letting the students down. My “rate my prof” performance suffered a lot as a result, and I’m sure there is anger out there towards me. I can’t possibly go back in time now and redo it or give those former students any kind of closure, and this haunts me, pretty much every day. I held my responsibility to help students as one of my key values, and in this capacity anyway, I failed at it, and feel really, really terrible about that. If any of them are reading this, I wish they can know how sorry I am, and perhaps, instead of believing that I just didn’t care (or however they made sense of things), I hope they can understand that I was basically a drowning man in those weeks/months, and it was not through uncaring-ness that I dropped the ball. I am so, so sorry for that. It happened in 2015-2016, and I still fear going out in the world because of the hundreds of people out there for whom I “didn’t come through”. It’s an absolute shit-feeling. And I know “I’m sorry” doesn’t actually change anything.)
I don’t remember very well, the meetings I had with my boss in the final weeks. I know from my end it felt like I was asking for help but just “getting in trouble”. The threats became more dire, their behaviour became more unfriendly, the Department’s “vibe” turned as chill as a morgue freezer, and I walked down the halls with a feeling of disgrace, no longer able to look my own colleagues in the eye because, I was the Zero, after all.
So, my point is, the “sort yourself out” approach to behaviour change, although it works for people much of the time, does not work, and indeed, backfires, for some people some of the time. The mysterious cause of this is, I believe, unresolved trauma. When you approach a trauma-struggling person with the whole “stop being weak and lazy, work harder and be responsible for yourself” frame, then you will likely make them worse, not better. Because their problem is not that they are weak, or lazy, or need to work harder. Their problem is that their nervous system has become wildly dysregulated and mis-calibrated for everyday life, because it was cranked WAYYYYYYY up into survival-crisis-mode, and they haven’t been able to recalibrate their nervous system so that they can function “normally”.
Telling someone who is losing hours of their days to dissociative blank-outs and London-pea-soup-like brain fog to “get it together”, is like telling a cancer patient to hurry up and regrow their hair, or a spinal patient to stop being so lazy and go run a marathon. And if they can’t do it, give them a zero. Tell them it’s because they are not motivated or disciplined enough. That’ll help….
And this is, effectively, what we do to ourselves as we embark on yet another session on the Self Improvement Treadmill.
The truth is, if your life isn’t coming together the way you’d imagined, if you are struggling to succeed and keep it together and pursue your goals and follow your passions and all that, then there is a very good likelihood that you DO NOT NEED motivational, organizational, or goal-setting help. At least, not right now, not as a first step. No, you need to heal from trauma. You need to train your mind-body to react to the present moment accurately, rather than reacting to it as though it was the crisis-emergency-terror of your past.
And until you do THAT, sort out your nervous system, you might say, then you’re probably going to continue struggling, pouring your efforts into trying to keep up with life and ending up at the end of it, with a Zero.
I think, personally, this is one of the most important insights to come from the past half-century of science. Trauma lurks in so many of our mind-bodies; it has programmed our unconsciousnesses and sculpted our families, indeed our cultures; it has contaminated our sense of self-worth; it has amplified our emotional reactions to perceived threats to the point that we find it impossible to face them; it has shaped our perceptions, our memories and even our imaginations of what is possible for us; and it has polluted our beliefs about other people, in countless ways, making us swing wildly between idealization and grief, attachment and isolation, trust and terror.
Trauma is the invisible pen writing the story of our lives while we believe we’re writing it ourselves.
And so, if you want to “heal”, to take steps forward with your life, to FINALLY get off the goddamn Self-Improvement Treadmill, then my advice to you as a starting point would be, look into trauma. There are great healing resources out there, although it can be very difficult to find and get plugged into them. But they exist now. Therapy isn’t just “talk therapy” or “cognitive behavioural habit formation”. We know WAY more than that now, and have developed some great therapeutic techniques. Look for things like EMDR perhaps. Or therapists informed with C-PTSD training. Or practitioners who emphasis Somatic and Embodied approaches. If you have the luxury of getting such “outside” help, then start by getting the right kind.
But aside from “getting the right help”, and for the many situations in which this help is not readily accessible, there are specific things you can do, for yourself, to finally begin breaking your cycles of suffering. Before you create another vision board and chase a bunch of goals, there are some more important things to do first. It’s like, if you’re going to build a house, don’t start on the second floor. Lay a good, solid foundation first.
This will be the topic of my next post in this series….
(NOTE: I’m sorry to leave you hanging like this…..I’ve been working on this next post, and the ones after it, for a couple of years now off and on, and I still don’t feel ready. But instead of forcing myself to just push through it, or giving up and walking away, I’m trying a “middle ground” approach. It’s not avoidance of the task; it’s temporary delay for the purposes of gaining clarity. It’s not “being a perfectionist”; it’s “taking just one more round to polish it”. Is this the right approach? I don’t know. But it feels better than just pushing through or walking away. So….it’ll take a wee bit more time to finish the upcoming posts about Laying a Solid Foundation. We’ll get there….) Cheers.