Be Courageous, Even If You Don’t Have To Be

One of my favorite quotes about courage is Aristotle’s: “Courage is the first of the human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

Nothing tests your capacity for courage more than when it’s the only option you have. Well sure, you can crawl into a fetal position and wish your challenges away, but if you have a modicum of fight left in you, eventually, after a good, ugly cry, you muster up the courage to act and face your challenges head-on. This becomes easier when you’ve faced challenges in the past, but less so when you haven’t, or when you’re dealt a serious blow that leaves you fearful such as a loved one passing away suddenly, a diagnosis of terminal illness, being fired from your job, or your significant other leaving you, to name a few.

Nobody makes it through life unscathed (and none of us make it out alive). Oftentimes, it comes down to your attitude or perspective, and if you’re anything like me, after you scramble to make sense of your challenges (why did this happen? What did I do to make this happen?), at some point, you recognize that it’s unproductive to constantly look backward (analysis paralysis). It’s much more productive to learn to cope by working through the challenges, lean on loved ones for support and encouragement, and take necessary steps to quell the fear and anxiety of doomsday scenarios playing in your head. In the end, everything works itself out and I’m sure most, if not all of you, can think of situations where this rings true.   

This post focuses on the psychology of courage – dealing with challenges and stressors you face by virtue of being a functioning member of the human race (and yes, the previous link takes you to a handbook…you’re welcome!). Philosophers have focused on physical courage and moral courage, where the former highlights being courageous in the face of physical/bodily harm, and the latter focuses on doing the right thing even if it means going against popular views and risk being ostracized. While there isn’t an all-encompassing, agreed-upon definition of psychological courage (this article identifies at least 29), fear is an inherent component, regardless of the type of courage.

Wooden human figure looking defeated with stacks of rocks around him.

In the Ten Rules for Being Human, courage is one of the lessons of Rule #8 (What You Make of Your Life is Up to You). Put simply, courage means to be brave enough to go after what you want; to take the initial steps toward a goal; stand up for the underdog, and/or voice an unpopular opinion. Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not fearful, it’s about taking action despite your fears. Courage is also context-specific, that is, you might display courage by standing up for the so-called underdog, defending him/her, but have difficulty standing up to your parents because you’re afraid to hurt them or fear being cut off financially.

The level of courage you display is also based on socialization and life experiences. If you’re raised in a home where your role models didn’t stand up for what they believed in for fear of being shunned, upsetting someone, or losing something meaningful, chances are you internalized this approach and might not want to rock the boat. On the flip side, you could take after your grandmother Gertrude, and despite having not-so-brave role models in your home, be quite courageous and not give a shit whom you piss off, or about the consequences of your courageous action(s).  

Additionally, whether you experienced your initial disappointments in the home, and HOW your parents helped you cope with challenges, will greatly influence how you handle setbacks. If your parents never said “NO!” and let you do whatever you want, or tried to shield you from challenges, then the world will seem unfair and cruel. You won’t be equipped to handle what life throws at you, most likely lacking the courage to stand up for yourself or take productive action to resolve your issues. (This article does a good job of summarizing some of what exists in the child psychology and parenting literature.)

The degree of courage you display can also be informed by your lived experience. If your life resembles the Game of Thrones series, unlike the bravery (or stupidity) of its characters, you might become fearful of trying new things, accept the blows you’re dealt, and carve out a safe space. If your life is all roses and rainbow-farting unicorns, you might be more confident and courageous, and open to new adventures and risk-taking. For most of us, our lives fall somewhere in between these extremes; made up of successes and challenges. And despite your experiences, your attitude or perspective will determine how well you cope.

Some people view challenges as opportunities, while others are plagued by fear when things don’t work out, paralyzed by the stress of the unknown. I ride this courageous-badass-woe-is-me rollercoaster often. But challenging experiences are meant to teach you lessons and help you become more courageous and convicted to work through your problems and cultivate greater resilience (yeah, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done).

Stones with inspirational words carved on them ("Dream," "Courage," "Inspire," and "Harmony").

I understand that life isn’t fair and some of you have had to deal with way more challenges than others. But comparisons and navel-gazing about the unfairness of life will hinder your ability to work through your challenges, and turn you into a bitter, self-pitying individual (and we don’t want that, do we?!?!).

Before walking you through some of the strategies I use to help me summon the courage and keep my fears at bay, I recommend that you review my posts on gratitude, forgiveness, self-awareness, humility, faith, and/or surrender. The aforementioned posts include personal experiences and strategies to cultivate these specific virtues. This post draws from these to help you cultivate the courage to move forward despite your fears, and work through your challenges like the badass that you are.

Understand Your Worldview

Everyone has a worldview, a perspective that helps you make sense of the world. It can be informed by many factors such as a belief in a higher being (God, the Universe), why events take place (there’s a reason for everything or it’s all random), locus of control (internal vs. external, free will vs. determinism), capacity for risk-taking and uncertainty, life experiences, cultural/ethnic background, education, your sense of self (confidence, worthiness), and the influence of others, to name a few.

My point is that before you’re able to deal with challenges and therefore display courage, you have to understand your worldview…why you think the way you do, the root of your fears, and how to change negative thought patterns into more productive ones. This might entail therapy or diving into self-help books, but whatever you choose, it’s important to put in the work to peel back the layers of subconscious conditioning that have resulted in your worldview, especially if it’s negative. Check out my post on self-awareness for specific strategies.

Is Your Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

In understanding your worldview, it’s also important to assess whether you’re a pessimist or optimist. Are you more optimistic when it comes to encouraging others and less so when it comes to dealing with your own challenges? Are you a risk-taker that thrives when challenged? Or are you risk-averse and constantly strive for equilibrium? In examining your perspective, do you find that you engage in positive or negative self-talk?

This often happens without our awareness and is the result of conditioning based on what we’re told by others (parents, educators, peers) and our life experiences. At some point, we internalize these messages and regardless of what we consciously tell ourselves (you’re great! You can do anything!), the subconscious messages are much more powerful. Reprogramming our subconscious to replace negative thoughts with positive ones takes work and can be achieved via techniques such as those identified by Dr. Bruce Lipton, a leading biologist who focuses on “bridging science and spirit.”

Acknowledge Your Fears

Yellow "Fear" sign with a red line across it.

Once you start to understand what makes you tick and how you view the world and your place in it, you can delve deeper to examine the root of your fears. Let me just point out here that being courageous is not about eliminating fear altogether. As I mentioned earlier, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s taking action to solve problems despite your fears. The fear-or-flight instinct is a biological response that has helped humans survive, so please don’t think that fear is a negative response that you need to eliminate from your life. On the contrary, the fear response can save your life (like when you come across a bear in the woods; when someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting at you; when you’re crossing the street and a car comes barreling towards you at 50 mph with no intention of stopping…in all these instances, RUN!!!).

Here are some practical steps to help you get a grip:

(1) Identify the challenge you’re facing (loss of a job, break-up, death of a loved one).

(2) What is/are your fears (financial insecurity, being alone for the rest of your life)?

(3) What can you do to eliminate your fear(s) (job hunt, join a dating site, seek therapy)?

(4) What can’t you control (change your significant other’s mind, bring back your loved one)?

(5) Have you experienced a similar challenge, and if so, how did you handle it?

(6) What is the worst thing that can happen? Will this matter in 5 years? 10 years?

(7) What lesson(s) can you learn from your challenge(s)?

The idea is to deconstruct your thoughts and feelings about the challenge(s) you’re facing, acknowledge your fear(s), understand that you’re not helpless, that there are lessons to be learned, and that you DO in fact possess the courage to work through your issues. It’s important to break things down into digestible parts, take action, and recognize that working through your challenges is a process (it’s a marathon, not a sprint!). You might have to work through the practical steps (mentioned above) a number of times before you’re able to see progress.

We’re not automatons and don’t have switches to turn on and off when things get hairy. Denial will not get you very far, but working through your challenges will help you build confidence, cultivate resilience, and recognize that you’re stronger and much more equipped to handle similar challenges in the future.

Managing Stress

When you’re faced with challenges and fear the worst, part of cultivating the courage to deal with your problems entails managing your stress. As much as you tell yourself that everything will be fine and that you have nothing to worry about, your subconscious conditioning creeps in with not-so-positive messages of doom and gloom. This constant mental ping-pong can be exhausting and wear you down emotionally and physically. So you have to look for ways to destress in order to deal with your challenges.

"Stress" and "Relax" street signs.

Meditation is one way to manage your stress. Quieting your mind to gain access to your inner wisdom can be a challenging, but worthwhile pursuit. Meditation practices can help you improve “sustained attention” while mindfulness can help anchor you to the present and become more aware of your choices.

Another way to deal with the challenges you face and build your courage is exercise. It’s not only physically and mentally rewarding, but also reduces stress and anxiety (that can lead to cognitive impairment if left unchecked). I started working out regularly (3-4 times a week) a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an integral part of my life. I’m not preparing to run a marathon nor aspire to enter bodybuilding competitions; I do it because at the end of a workout, I feel awesome and I’m so exhausted that stressing out isn’t an option.

When I’m not in the mood to workout, I push myself harder to do so because afterward, I feel great…like I accomplished something. This, in turn, gives me the courage to take action in other areas of my life. You don’t have to get a personal trainer and spend a lot of money (unless you want to). There are a lot of workout videos on YouTube and classes offered at your local gym; you just have to take the initial steps. Trust me, if I can stick to a program, you can too, and at some point, it’ll become so much a part of your life that NOT working out is no longer an option.

Be Grateful, Even When Things Look Bleak

No matter what challenges you face, there are ALWAYS reasons to be grateful. Practicing gratitude has mental and physical health benefits (see my post on gratitude for details). It also puts things in perspective and enables you to see that maybe…just maybe your challenges aren’t as horrific as you imagine. When I catch myself thinking about the “what-ifs” and all that can go wrong in life, I bring myself back to reality and think about what I’m grateful for. I list about 4-5 things, and just like that, my mood turns positive. Try it! It really works but you have to keep at it until it becomes an automatic response (like breathing).

I understand that experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing. Practicing gratitude can become an integral part of the healing process, and there are many exercises that can help you to give thanks and build your courage.

Final Words…

It takes courage to push yourself out of your comfort zone and commit to taking action after you’ve been knocked down. Often, the enormity of your courage becomes apparent in retrospect (it does for me). Every step you take to solve your problems illustrates trust in your abilities and boosts your confidence to stay the course. Sure, the moment you experience a setback you might doubt whether you can keep going, but you CAN and MUST keep moving forward.

You can exist and let life happen to you, or LIVE by recognizing that you’re an active participant in shaping your life. The choice is yours…so make it a good one. Lastly, take Seneca the Roman philosopher’s words to heart: “There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Indeed!

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

To Surrender Is Not To Give Up, It Can Actually Be Empowering

Surrender has more of a negative connotation than a positive one, with the thesaurus citing “renounce,” “submit,” “capitulate,” “admit of defeat,” “lay down arms,” “yield,” “give in” or “give up,” etc. as synonyms. Putting aside the negative, I view surrender as a positive approach to life; letting go of control and doing away with the idea that you can bend the Universe to your will. Sure, we all want things to work out in our favor all the time, but sometimes life throws curveballs. So worrying about the “hows/whys” of your decisions and outcomes is often an exercise in futility that leaves you with heartburn. I’m not saying you should lead a passive existence, on the contrary, it’s important to be proactive. But if you’re like me, you struggle with letting go and surrendering to the will of God (or the Universe). And although you tell yourself you do, it becomes a game of mental ping-pong: consciously, you tell yourself that you’ve done all you can and will leave the rest to God (or the Universe), but your subconscious programming leads to negative thinking and anxiety about being passive, leaving you conflicted about surrendering.

Letting go also runs counter to Western culture, which values being in control, individualism, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, and the idea that your lot in life is in your hands. As such, socialization influences your capacity to surrender, as does your life experiences. On the other hand, sometimes people need to surrender because they’re anxious about life and their choices, finding comfort in charismatic leaders (religious or otherwise), seeking guidance from therapists, and placing faith in self-help experts purporting to have the winning strategy to help you achieve peace of mind. (Isn’t this why the multi-billion dollar self-help industry continues to flourish? Premised on the idea that if you follow Roadmap X or Formula Y and change your thoughts and actions, you’ll have control over your life and achieve all your most-cherished desires?)

This brings up the philosophical debate of free will versus determinism. Do you adhere to the idea that you have free will (complete control) and your life is what you make of it, or do you believe that your life is determined (complete surrender) and your role is to go through the motions and accept what life throws at you? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle, believing that you have free will in the context of a life course that’s already determined (where you’re born, your nationality, who your parents are, the socioeconomic class you’re born in to, etc.). One argument takes it further and declares that it’s about what’s relevant to you based on the psychological needs of defeatism and aspiration.

Defeatists view their lives from a deterministic perspective, which places responsibility outside themselves, resulting in self-deceit and under-achievement when things don’t go according to plan. Aspirants wholeheartedly embrace free will, resulting in rage and bitterness when things don’t turn out as they plan or expect. I believe that you have free will within a relatively determined life course, and that you have the ability to change your circumstances (for example, you grow up poor and become wealthy in adulthood), especially if you live in a country where opportunities abound. BUT sometimes life happens when you’re making other plans, and your attitude and response to these curveballs will determine your success (however you define “success”).

"Explore" white flag with wooden background.

Surrender is one of the lessons in Rule #5 (Learning Does Not End) of the Ten Rules, which centers on the idea of allowing life to unfold and “embrace your role as a perpetual student of life.” But how do you get to a place where you can move beyond ruminating on past experiences trying to figure out the “whys,” as well as reigning in the “what-if” thinking about the future? It’s not easy, but in sharing some of my experiences and strategies to reduce heartburn, I hope to help you achieve a less-anxious existence. The goal is to avoid being either a defeatist or aspirant, and instead become more resilient, more responsible, and open to the experiences of life – all intended to teach us lessons. This, in turn, leads to a calmer, more determined mindset with minimal stress, which, I’m convinced, ARE in your control.

Evaluate Your Approach to Life

Assessing your approach to life is a foundational step, and will shed light on how you view the world, your place in it, and what makes you tick. The following questions are by no means an exhaustive list…some might be too general, others might be too specific. But they will help you look inward, especially if you don’t engage in self-reflection, or do so less frequently than some of us navel-gazers whose self-awareness meter is off the charts (and not always in a good way).

Do you believe in God? This is a fundamental issue that influences your approach to life. If you do believe in God, my assumption is that you believe that the Almighty has influence in your life. Maybe you seek answers from God through prayer and gratitude and believe He’s kind and loving. Or maybe you’ve never sought His help and believe in a vengeful God that must be feared because if you step out of line, you’ll be punished. Or maybe your views fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. My introduction to God was alarming, more so because of how it shaped my views of self (in relation to a vengeful God that only punishes).

I remember vividly at the ripe age of five being told by one of my favorite aunts that God is all-knowing. My response to that was: “Even under blankets?” To which she said, “Yes, even under blankets, behind closed doors, and He even knows what you’re thinking and feeling.” At such a formative age, that freaked me out, not because I was doing anything wrong (well, maybe sneaking cookies in bed and eating them under my blanket), but the idea of being completely exposed frightened me. The notion that there was no place to hide and no room for bad thoughts formed my impression of a vengeful God that needed to be feared. So when I faced challenges, I assumed that I was being punished for being a bad person, and accepted the so-called punishment, asking for forgiveness and vowing to do better. So at an early age, I’d formed an opinion of myself as a bad person who needed to be monitored by God to remain good.

A heart line with "life" written along the top in red and a hand holding the line.

Some of my extended family were also quite influential in shaping this negative view of self. Their judgmental views of right and wrong didn’t align with mine. When some of them arrived in the U.S., I was a typical American teenager navigating the perils of adolescence (dealing with the typical stages of development and trying to survive middle school…ah, the wonder years). But in their eyes, I was “too American” and had lost my way, and would, therefore, be punished by God. At 13, puberty is harsh enough without some close-minded folks telling you everything that’s wrong with you.

It wasn’t until my late-20s that my perspective about myself and God softened. It was then that I started to embrace a loving, kind God that was there to help guide and protect me, and not just show up to punish me when I did something wrong. I also finally embraced that I was a good person…a fallible human being who makes mistakes (no one is perfect!). Maybe this also had a lot to do with the guilt-ridden religion I was raised in (Islam…like Catholicism). But the more I pulled away from institutional religion (and those extended, close-minded family members), the freer I was to embrace a loving God. 

If you’re a non-believer, do you believe in a Universal order? For those who don’t believe in God (Agnostics, atheists, etc.), do you believe that there’s more to life than just what we see? Are you spiritual? Or do you believe that you’re in complete control of your life, that the physical realm of existence is all there is, and that what happens to you is completely random? And let me just point out that being a non-believer doesn’t preclude having a moral compass. Your moral compass isn’t tied to religion (so please don’t vilify non-believers and assume that they’re amoral). 

Do you believe we have free will or is everything determined? Or both? I think you know where I stand on this issue and what works for me, so I won’t repeat what I already stated. Your views regarding free will and determinism should be informed by your lived experience, and therefore aren’t static. They’ll most likely change over time depending on the circumstances you face and how you deal with challenges. Again, striking a balance along the defeatist-aspirant spectrum should be the goal.

Are you a pessimist or optimist? This too is informed by your lived experience. Some people are inherently optimistic while others are Debbie-downers and nothing positive can change that. Some people are realists – accepting what is. I’m an optimist and always look for the lessons and positive aspects of challenging experiences (even if I initially freak out).

4 yellow balls with different emotions on the front.

Are you happy and do you feel successful? This is a loaded question that requires you to define what happiness and success mean to you (I chose to lump these together because in general, when you’re successful you’re happy, and vice versa…but sometimes you’re successful and not happy…). What yardstick do you use to measure happiness and success? Comparisons to others (The Joneses?!?!)? First of all, don’t use others to gauge your level of happiness and success, especially if you’re basing it on peoples’ social media posts. You have no idea what’s going on in others’ lives because while they may be projecting a blissful existence online, their real lives might not be as happy and successful as you think.  

Western society has led us to believe that you can achieve perpetual happiness, but recognizing that this is a fallacy will help you be less critical of yourself for not maintaining a constant state of bliss. Some days, it’s hard to get out of bed and face the day. Some days you feel funky and don’t want to smile. It’s okay to feel that way…give yourself the latitude to feel not-so-happy without judging yourself too harshly. Life is full of joyful experiences punctuated with challenges that shouldn’t turn us into curmudgeons, but instead strengthen our resolve and make us more grateful for all the blessings we have.

Do you think people are inherently good-natured? Your answer to this question is also informed by your lived experience. Maybe you think people are always out to get you and their motivation to help you is based on what they can get out of the exchange. Or maybe you give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they do something to hurt or offend you. Remember, no one is all good or all bad. If this was true, it would be easy to bin people and just stay away from the bad ones. Remember this quote (attributed to many authors, so I’m not sure who said it): “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves us all not to talk about the rest of us.” Given that we’re human, and that even the best of us veer off course, do you have the capacity to forgive? If so, then you’re on the right track because holding grudges does more harm to you than the person you hold them against (let that shit go!). And stop thinking that people are always out to get you (on the contrary, people aren’t thinking and plotting against you).

Hopefully, asking some of the preceding questions will bring clarity and a deeper understanding of yourself. This, in turn, should help you go beyond just trying to figure out if you have the capacity to surrender.

Strategies To Cultivate Surrender

Let’s assume that your aim is to stop worrying, become less anxious, and/or offload the burden of complete control over your life (because carrying the entire load can become exhausting). If so, explore the following strategies for helping you to quiet the mental ping-pong game and achieve a more peaceful existence.

(1) Examine Past Experiences

What positive and negative experiences have shaped your capacity to surrender to God (or the Universe), knowing that everything will be fine? Did it make you feel helpless or hopeful? In order to gain clarity, identify 3-4 positive experiences and 3-4 negative experiences. Summarize each experience in the following manner:

A. Describe what happened. Was it a decision, a curveball…something unexpected?

B. Identify your thoughts/feelings (happy, shocked, helpless, sad, angry, hopeful).

C. Identify your approach (controlling, surrendering, both, neither).

D. Identify if this matters/mattered in a year? Five years? Ten years? How influential is/was this experience in the grand scheme of things?

E. What did you learn? Did it strengthen your ability to surrender or not? Why?

A woman hunched over trying her sneakers.

Doing this exercise should help you gain more clarity and recognize that you’re not helpless and that as long as you’re proactive, you can learn a lot from your challenges. Once you do this exercise on paper, thereafter, you can do it mentally. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at identifying your triggers (when you feel helpless and anxious) and ameliorate your stress. If nothing else, it’s important to identify your lessons learned, especially for challenging experiences.

(2) Exercise/Workout

One way to deal with the challenges you face is exercise. It’s not only physically and mentally rewarding, but also reduces stress and anxiety (that can lead to cognitive impairment if left unchecked). I started working out regularly (3-4 times a week) a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an integral part of my life. I’m not preparing to run a marathon nor aspire to enter bodybuilding competitions; I do it because at the end of a workout, I feel good and I’m so exhausted that stressing isn’t an option. When I’m not in the mood to workout I push myself harder to do so, because afterward, I feel great…like I accomplished something. You don’t have to get a personal trainer and spend a lot of money (unless you want to). There are a lot of workout videos on YouTube and classes offered at your local gym; you just have to take the initial steps. Trust me, if I can stick to a program, you can too, and at some point, it’ll become so routine that NOT working out is no longer an option.

(3) Prayer

I don’t care if you’re praying to God, Angels, or the Universe, just pray. Believe that you’re being heard and ask for guidance. Don’t just go through the motions because without faith, you might as well not do it. I find prayer to be a powerful mechanism of stress relief. It helps me realize that I’m not alone in the world, that I don’t have complete control in life, and that it’s okay to ask for help.

(4) Therapy

Seeking a therapist is another option that some people find helpful. If you’re at a place where you need to see a professional to help you make sense of your life, by all means, do so. But be very selective. Different therapists emphasize different approaches. If you see someone who’s focused on psychoanalysis, the questions that arise during therapy will most likely focus on your childhood and past experiences (in order to identify the roots of maladaptive patterns). If you seek out a psychiatrist, he or she may not focus too much on your upbringing and instead focus on the present and most likely prescribe medication. IMHO, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a clinical disorder (major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia), don’t automatically settle for medication. Try to work through your issues first, you’ll be surprised how strong and capable you are. Of course, I’m not a clinician nor a licensed psychologist, so please take my recommendations to forego medication with caution. I’m basing my advice on my experience.

Hands sculpted in stone as if to pray.

Towards the end of my first year as a Ph.D. student, I was quite overwhelmed (very anxious). I went to the medical center at my school and was seen by a psychiatrist, who within five minutes, claimed that I needed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. I told him I wasn’t too keen on taking medication, but he insisted. He prescribed the lowest dose of anti-anxiety medication. I carried the prescription around with me for a couple of weeks before I decided to take it. I ended up taking it for about six months but found that it wasn’t very effective. I realized that I needed to work through the reasons why I felt so anxious as opposed to applying a band-aid solution that masked my issues and made me feel weird (being a student of psychology and hyper-aware does that to you). So I stopped cold turkey (which I don’t advise…I felt like I had vertigo for a few weeks). I started praying, working out, and reading articles about how best to handle anxiety. (I also felt less overwhelmed with being a Ph.D. student.) These things actually helped me identify why I was so anxious… a lot better than popping pills. That was the only time in my life that I took medication, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

(5) Breathe

We forget how important rhythmic breathing is in alleviating stress and anxiety. When you’re panicking, most often, you’re advised to breathe in/out of a paper bag. So try it (not using a paper bag…unless you really need it). When you’re stressed and continue to ruminate on past experiences and future “what-ifs,” take the time to breathe. If you meditate, you’re already conscious of your breathing. If you don’t meditate, get in the habit of taking deep breaths…take 8-10 deep breaths and exhale slowly. It might make you a bit dizzy, so don’t do it while operating heavy machinery. It’s amazing how the simple act of rhythmic breathing can help to calm you down.

"Inhale" and "exhale" in speech bubbles on sidewalk.

I hope the aforementioned strategies are helpful…try some or all to gauge what works for you. At the end of the day, it really is about your willingness to self-reflect and address the issues that plague you in order to achieve peace of mind (or at least minimize your stress). Your attitude will determine your success. Life isn’t easy and can sometimes feel like a constant battle, but the more willing you are to surrender (let go and let God) and allow life to unfold, knowing that nothing lasts forever (whether good or bad), the more you’re able to focus on the joys and learn from the challenges. None of us are getting out of here alive, so make the best of life while you’re here, and try to help others along the way.

Peace, love, and blessings,

FN

When All Else Fails, Your Faith Pulls You Through

Contrary to how impressed people are with all the schooling I’ve completed and my many degrees, I wasn’t the best student in high school. Aside from playing sports and being involved in student council, I was bored, distracted by boys, constantly worried about fitting in, questioned whether I was pretty enough, and didn’t give much thought to college until my senior year (for the record, most high schoolers prep for college stuff way before their senior year). But there was one class that at once held my attention and made me anxious: honors English.

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was as surprised as the teacher to learn that I was placed in the honors English class (I was always in advanced classes, but this was a step above…composed of an elite group of smartie pants). On the first day of class, I almost didn’t show up because I was convinced that it was an administrative error, but I couldn’t just skip class (I didn’t want to get detention on the first day of school…I was sure I was going to get detention at some point but not the first day). So I showed up, feeling very out of place and quite intimidated. The students in the class had taken honors courses together since their freshman year, but I was the newbie. And while none of them made me feel unwelcome (most of them were my friends), the teacher went out of her way to make me feel like I didn’t belong.

As she walked around to greet each student, she’d glance over in my direction every so often, which made feel even more anxious. It turned out that she’d in fact met with all of the other students at some point in the Summer because they were given an assignment to complete…not Summer school, but homework that included an exam at the end of the first week of class. This homework included an analysis of some of the stories in the Bible. This was all news to me. Nobody told me about this, which made me feel even more out of place…convinced that someone in the administration office was out to lunch when they put my schedule together.

As she approached my desk, my heart started to race so I kept my head down, fiddling with my class schedule in my hands. She said hello and asked my name and for my class schedule. My eyes darted up in her direction as I managed to form a “hello” under my breath. She asked how I’d ended up in her class and I told her that I had no idea. She said I could stay for the day, but that it was probably a mistake that I’d been placed in the class, and that she’d speak to someone in the administration office to see fix the error. I nodded and sank into my seat…I was embarrassed and hoped no one else had heard our exchange.

During class, I took notes and tried not to make eye contact with any of my classmates, and especially with the teacher for fear that she’d call me out and ask why I was taking notes if this was my first AND last day in her class. Even so, she handed me a syllabus (surprising, I thought). I didn’t pay much attention to her lecture (most of which was a review of the syllabus), and after class, I ran straight to my 11th grade English teacher’s classroom, hoping to gain clarity about the mix-up. I managed to catch him and told him what happened. He said it wasn’t a mistake, and that he’d recommended that I’d be added to the honors English class because I’d excelled in the advanced English class the previous year as well as the first two years of high school English.

He said I needed to be challenged and that I’d do well in the honors class. He also said he’d speak to the teacher to let her know it wasn’t an administrative error. I must have stared back at him blankly because he assured me that if I wanted to move back to the advanced class, I could, but that he recommended I stick it out. I was as upset with him as I was happy to learn how much faith he had in me. Since it was still morning, I asked if I could think it over, and let him know what I’d decided at the end of the school day.

The rest of the first day of classes was a blur given my weighty decision: stay in my comfort zone (advanced English) or push myself out of it and take on the challenge (honors English). The thought of dealing with her again made me queasy but I knew that if I didn’t take on the challenge it would haunt me (it really would because I love a good challenge). It also brought up issues of faith – how much did I believe in myself? Did I know I could do well (or at least not flunk out)? I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I’d try my best and see where I landed.

Suffice it to say that it was a bumpy ride. I failed the first exam on the Bible stories but progressed steadily, and by mid-year, I was doing well. Vindication arrived when I received an A- on a major writing assignment. I finally felt like I belonged in the class and had earned her respect. By the end of the year, I was at a B+, which in an honors course is valued as an A (or maybe an A+…).

(BTW, I didn’t attend a private, religious high school and I’m not sure why the initial assignment/exam centered on Bible stories…it just did. And aside from one other assignment that focused on a story in the Bible, the rest of the assignments/exams were non-religious.)

"Hope" and "Despair" wooden signs, pointing in opposite directions.

The purpose of telling you this story is to highlight faith, which isn’t limited to a religious definition such as the belief in the existence of a higher being (God), but also includes having confidence in yourself, something or someone (having faith in someone’s word, that life will get better, that your car will start in the morning, etc.). Sometimes, your faith is restored or strengthened after you see tangible proof; sometimes your faith is shaken, and depending on the situation, having it restored might be a challenge, if at all; and sometimes, no matter what happens, your faith in God, the good of others, etc., is unshakeable.

You can also call it trust or confidence, but I’ll call it faith, which is one of the lessons of the Ten Rules, specifically Rule #10 (You’ll Forget All of This At Birth). Throughout my life, I’ve been challenged to keep the faith. Not that I don’t have faith in God, myself or the goodness of others, but my faith has always been tinged with skepticism or uncertainty (but my faith in God is unshakeable even if I don’t understand things sometimes). My faith in my abilities is what wavers. And while, for the most part, I had faith that I’d do well in my honors English class, I didn’t have a crystal ball and God didn’t come to visit me to deliver the message that with perseverance, I’d be fine.

The writing assignment that I received an A- on focused on the story of Job in the Bible, which deepened my faith – not only in myself but also in what it means to have faith when what you see or experience around you makes you question whether things will turn out all right. I didn’t grow up reading the Bible, but the story of Job is one to be appreciated by people of all faiths (as well as by nonreligious folks). True, there are stories in the Qur’an and Torah of patience and faith, and I’m sure you have your own stories and experiences that have tested and/or strengthened your faith.

In the story of Job (for those who aren’t familiar), at the urging of Satan, God tests Job by allowing monumental suffering at the hands of Satan: taking away his wealth, his family, and his health. Job’s wife questions why he still has so much faith in God when everything has been taken from him. She encourages him to curse the Almighty, but Job refuses to do so, holding steadfast to his faith. Job’s friends assume that his suffering is a result of his sins, but Job is a humble, pious man. He speaks to God and the Almighty reminds him of His omnipresence, wisdom, and power. Job agrees, acknowledging that as a fallible human, he doesn’t have the capacity to understand God’s ways, but nonetheless trusts Him. Afterward, God blesses Job by giving him twice as much as what was taken from him, and Job lives to old age – a happy, prosperous, and God-fearing man.

A silhouette of a woman praying.

If you believe in God, then this story needs no further explanation and the lessons of patience and faith are obvious. If you don’t believe in God, the lessons of patience and faith are still relevant because I’m sure most of you, if not all believers and non-believers alike, have faced challenges, leaving you to question why you’re being cursed, singled out, or so unlucky. And once you get passed the “woe-is-me” and questioning, you’re left to figure out how to deal with the circumstances. But if you view them from the perspective of life having meaning beyond the physical/tangible, and as lessons to be learned from, then you’re left with faith…the faith that things will turn out in your best interest even if you can’t see what that is at the moment. 

There are a lot more experiences I can share to illustrate faith, like when I applied to one school…my dream school for Ph.D. studies and got accepted; when I moved to the East Coast (away from my family) with the faith that, no matter what, all would work out; when I deployed to a war zone and had faith that I’d return home; when my father had surgery and I held on to the faith that it would go well; and when I walked away from a relationship instead of getting married because I had faith that I’d meet someone more compatible (albeit I didn’t have unwavering faith in these situations but enough to pull me through).

Some of you might read the above and think that the experiences I’ve had are trivial compared to those of you who’ve experienced REAL tragedies such as sudden death of a loved one (parent, child, spouse), loss of a job as the only breadwinner of your family (potentially resulting in the loss of your home), the onset of cancer, and/or false imprisonment due to the fact that justice isn’t blind, etc. I can’t pretend to know the extent to which your faith has been shaken and whether it’s possible to remain hopeful. Maybe these tragedies haven’t shaken your faith in the Almighty, but have eliminated your faith in what it means to live a good life.

No matter, I believe that if you get stuck thinking along these lines, your focus is not on the totality of existence, which includes physical and spiritual dimensions. Science explains a lot but it’s never been able to prove the existence of God or the spiritual dimension. And for life to be meaningful, it has to include more than what we experience physically.

Throwing your hands up and not trying anymore isn’t an option because all you’d be doing is letting life pass you by until it’s your time to die because we will all pass on one day (we just have no idea where we are in THAT line). Life can be harsh sometimes and the explanations for why you experience tragedies may be hard to come by, so unless you’re resigned to become (or remain) a pessimist, you have to shift your focus to what IS working in life because it can’t be all bad (check out my post on gratitude for more information).   

If you’re not religious, it’s your prerogative…no preaching here. For me, having faith in God is important and provides the grounding in a world that would otherwise feel somewhat meaningless. But I’m not a fan of organized religion either…I have respect for the traditions, the rituals, and the need for order, but I’m not wedded to a particular mosque or sect. (As a matter of fact, I’m a SuShi…LOL…my mother is Sunni and my father is Shia – two of the major sects in Islam. I wasn’t raised to wear my religion on my sleeve nor to condemn non-Muslims. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three Abrahamic traditions and are best viewed as relatively similar vehicles or paths to connect with God. And of course, there are also other traditions beyond these such as Jainism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, etc.).

An old book with some of the pages folded to form a heart.

Some of you believe that you’re in total control, but when life throws a monkey wrench into your well-laid plans and things go awry, what do you do? Where do you turn? If you’re a fatalist and believe that all events are destined, then maybe it’s easier to deal with the blows and not get too emotionally attached to your circumstances. But as humans, most of us are affected mentally and emotionally by negative experiences. Some handle it better than others, especially with the passing of time. Regardless, most of us are changed and constant negativity can chip away at your faith. Some of you are good at compartmentalizing your losses with your faith remaining intact (kudos to you!). Some of you lose faith and find it difficult to ever gain it again.

Cultivating Faith

So how do you cultivate or strengthen your faith? And why is it important to have faith that things will turn out okay, if not fine (but maybe not exactly as you expect)? I don’t have all the answers, but the following provides some ways to keep the faith, whether in God, in your abilities, and/or in others.

Review Past Experiences. When I face challenges, I draw on my previous experiences and remind myself that things turned out okay or better. I know this might not be the case for some people because sometimes things turn out worse than you anticipated. Maybe I’m a lucky person to be able to say that things always turn out okay or better, but I’m not sure luck has much to do with it. I’m an optimist, and in keeping the faith (in God, in the goodness of others) I remind myself of all that’s going right instead of focusing on what’s gone awry. By recounting my blessings, the view of lack is quickly replaced with a view of abundance. It’s important to understand that it takes regular practice to keep my faith intact…a constant reminder of all there is to be grateful for when my thoughts veer into negative territory.

Will This Kill Me? If the answer is “no” then there’s reason to have faith. Sure, things will happen that’ll leave you broken (losses, traumatic experiences), but time eventually heals wounds…you might never be the same or feel whole again, but you’ll survive. That’s the essence of life, right?!?! A compilation of good and not-so-good experiences leaving us the choice to accentuate the good and deal with the not-so-good as lessons to be learned.

Perspective Is Important. What you consider to be a tragedy, another person may not. You might have a bad day because you got into an argument with your spouse, you missed your train and showed up late to your meeting with your boss, and therefore, will not get the promotion you expected. And yeah, that’s a sucky day, leaving you to want to go home, change into your jammies, and curl up in a fetal position binge-watching dramas on Netflix. But a bad day for someone else might include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, getting kicked out of their home because they’re behind on rent, and not having enough money in their bank account to pay for groceries.

The latter is a far worse day than the former. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about what you consider to be a tragedy. Everyone’s entitled to feel rotten about the challenges they experience, but what I’m pointing out is the need to view your tragedies relative to worst-case scenarios. I’m certain that after learning about someone experiencing the latter tragedies, your challenges won’t look as bad (but don’t let guilt creep in!).

Faith Minimizes Stress & Anxiety. When you experience challenges, don’t you almost always look for ways to overcome them as opposed to succumbing to them? Chances are you assess your situation and try to come up with solutions as opposed to throwing your hands up and deeming the situation hopeless. Yes, you’re stressed and anxious, but keeping the faith that things will eventually work out is a lot better than doing nothing and worrying yourself sick. A couple of years ago, I had six rounds of interviews at one company – the last interview was with two senior VPs, so I assumed that I was in the running for the position. But I never heard back from the company.

I contacted the hiring manager and the HR folks a few times, but nobody got back to me. I was totally ghosted. It was very deflating. To this day, I’ve never heard back from them. It left a very bad taste in my mouth and I’ll never apply nor recommend this company to others. But a few weeks later, I started my search again, and in hindsight, I’m glad that things didn’t work out with that company (who wants to work with people who don’t have the decency to get back to a candidate…especially after six rounds of interviews?!?!).

I wholeheartedly believe that, at the end of the day, it’s your faith that’ll pull you through. How you go about holding on to it will determine how you experience life: as a glass half-full or half-empty person. A reality check might be all you need to put things in perspective and know that you haven’t been singled out to lead a miserable existence. When confronted with tragedies and challenges, look to others for support, count your blessings, and have faith that the impermanence of things guarantees that nothing good nor bad lasts forever. And that we, in fact, just might be spiritual beings having a physical experience, as opposed to the other way around.

Peace, love, and blessings,

FN

Humility Makes You A Badass, Not Meek

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment or have no conscience, humility is important to cultivate (if you don’t want to be thought of as a narcissist blowhard). Humility means having a strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, in addition to acknowledging your limitations. Someone who lacks humility can often be taught painful life lessons that can help him/her develop a healthy sense of who they are in relation to others. But sometimes, those very people – no matter how many times they’re presented with lessons to help them cultivate humility – will become increasingly more insecure and defensive and continue to behave in ways that reinforce their arrogance (don’t be like those people! They’re not fun to be around).

Humility is also a lesson under Rule #5 (Learning Does Not End) of the Ten Rules. No one is above learning lessons, and those who refuse to do so will continue to face similar challenges (on a hamster wheel of sorts). But this doesn’t mean that once you learn a lesson you can just tick it off your list and be done with it. Sometimes you face similar challenges as a way to reinforce your learning. For example, maybe you’re a humble person who’s never thought of yourself as superior to others, but since you’ve gained some power in your job and are managing people, it’s caused you to lose sight of the fact that everyone’s equal and you must treat people with respect. Then one day, you come into work and you’re told that the company merged with a competitor and everyone is being let go. In your search for another job, the person who ends up interviewing you is someone you managed and treated like shit. Karma? Maybe. But it’s definitely a lesson in humility.

Or what about gloating about your athletic prowess before a game (baseball, basketball, etc.), only to find that the younger athletes are much stronger and faster, kicking your tired old butt every time? Or being so financially secure that you push people away because you think they’re beneath you, then going bankrupt and finding yourself penniless and alone because you’re such a toxic person? If you’re someone with a modicum of self-awareness then you’d ask yourself what the lessons are and hopefully cultivate humility (and gratitude, for that matter). If not, then you’ll just become (more) angry and bitter, blaming the world for your problems.

Humility in Historical Context

In religious doctrine, humility is a virtue, with the individual submitting himself to God. Moral philosophers have a more secular view of humility, one that recognizes a person’s “dependence on others.” Still, other philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche viewed it as a weakness, juxtaposing it with “master morality” and the values of strength (honor, superiority, excellence). It’s interesting that Nietzsche’s view of humility aligns more closely with the lay definition of humility (being weak) as well as being aligned with contemporary Western values of pride and esteem in a me-oriented society, where your status and value are based on how much money and stuff you possess. And if you’re into that sort of thing, on the internet, it’s based on the number of followers and likes you garner on your social media pages.

An open book with an ancient map and eyeglasses sitting on top of the right page.

And while theologians and philosophers have focused on humility as one of many human virtues for at least a couple of centuries, it’s only in the last couple of decades that psychologists and other social researchers turned their focus toward the study of humility. And as usual, they have dissected it, defined it, and criticized it, which is worth exploring to understand it better and help you cultivate humility.

The Science of Humility

The field of positive psychology has been at the forefront of exploring humility, defining it as having three parts: accurate self-awareness and openness to learning; presenting yourself in a modest way; and awareness of others. Researchers have also studied it in relation to physical and psychological well-being, religion, pro-social behavior, and inter-group relations. But noted drawbacks of humility research have been an inability to come up with a uniform definition and the tendency to define it only in positive terms. Some researchers contrast the scientific definition of humility with a lay definition, which (as mentioned above) is negative, and includes lacking self-esteem, being common or insignificant, meek, and unworthy (we’ll come back to this point later).

Some researchers have identified two types of humility, one accounting for positive aspects and another accounting for negative aspects. The first is appreciative humility, which is associated with “personal success…celebrating others” and exhibiting “authentic pride, guilt, and prestige-based status” (the positive kind of humility). The second is self-abasing humility, which is associated with “personal failure…negative self-evaluations…hiding from others’ evaluations” and exhibiting “shame, low self-esteem, and submissiveness” (the negative kind…with a mix of neuroticism).

Development of Humility

Assuming that we’re talking about humility in the scientific sense (positive), one factor in being humble is a secure attachment, which “provides a sense of security that can serve as a buffer against…negative feedback.” So if you grew up in a home that fostered a secure attachment to your caregivers and you weren’t always criticized, then chances are you were able to develop a healthy sense of self. But it doesn’t mean that you didn’t receive negative feedback when warranted because if all you were told was how awesome you are, then you probably don’t think your shit stinks and might be a tad arrogant (stop that!).

Sometimes, in spite of growing up in a household where you only received negative feedback, you’re still able to cultivate humility. Maybe you had others (teachers, mentors, friends, etc.) who countered the negativity in your home with positive feedback. But don’t be too hard on your parents or others who raised you: remember, they were doing the best they could with what they knew at the time (this doesn’t apply to those who grew up in homes where they experienced severe physical and/or psychological abuse. That’s definitely not okay). And if you picked up on the negativity and engage in defeating self-talk, you have to learn to replace it with positive messages.

Wooden dolls dressed of different nationalities standing in front of a globe.

Another important factor in cultivating humility is identity development, with democratic parenting facilitating a positive sense of self, and autocratic or permissive parenting not so much (don’t be your child’s best friend or a drill sergeant!). This doesn’t mean that you weren’t an awkward teenager who questioned your worth and suffered from low self-esteem. We all know how precarious the teenage years can be and how cruel peers can be if you don’t fit into the mold of the popular, attractive individual who’s part of the “in-group.” But if you had good parenting and a secure attachment, this awkward teenage phase is just that: a passing phase. And when you move on to more important phases of your life (adulthood and beyond), you’re able to look back and laugh at your teenage years.

(I realize that bullying has become a much more serious issue that’s led some tormented souls to commit suicide, which breaks my heart. Nowadays, bullying is much worse because it isn’t confined to school grounds, occurring online, making it relentless and leaving the one being bullied feeling like the whole world is against him/her. If I could have a conversation with any of those young kids who thought their only escape was suicide, I’d give them a big hug and tell them that the best is yet to come. But when you’re young and your peers become the most influential people in your life, it’s hard not to think that you’re alone and have limited options; which is why it’s so important for parents and other caregivers to ensure that the lines of communication with their kids are always open.)

In junior high school, as I was going through puberty, my nose grew faster than any other body part, and I was tormented for having a big nose. I was very self-conscious about this because some of the kids teased me constantly. So yeah, junior high sucked for me. In retrospect, I can laugh about it because I realize that the people who teased me were probably quite insecure themselves and did it as a way to deflect criticism of their own shortcomings (not to mention the pressure to do what their peers did as a way to look cool in front of the group).

Once in high school, there was no teasing about my nose, and boys found me attractive (take that! Ha!). But high school wasn’t always a bed of roses. The insecure among us will always find something to tease others about as a way to feel superior. And these folks deserve sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility. 

HEXACO – Multidimensional Personality Inventory

A variation of the Big Five personality traits model that I mentioned in my post on gratitude, is the HEXACO personality inventory that was originally developed in 2000 by a couple of Canadian psychologists. It has six dimensions [openness to experience, “eXtraversion,” agreeableness (versus anger), emotionality, honesty-humility, and conscientiousness], and is unique (compared to the Big Five) due to the inclusion of an honesty-humility dimension, which indicates the degree to which a person manipulates others for personal gain, is law-abiding, materialistic, and feels entitled (you can check out the other scale descriptions here).

There’s a 400-page book on individual differences and personality if you want to delve deeper, and an entire book on the H-factor (honesty-humility). And if you’re REALLY curious about where you fall on the honesty-humility dimension or the HEXACO as a whole, you can take it here…or opt to take it in another language (because maybe English isn’t your native language). 

Cultural Humility

This type of humility is worth bringing to your attention because it highlights a multicultural approach that emphasizes an “interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused, characterized by respect and lack of superiority toward an individual’s cultural background and experience.” There’s quite a bit of research on cultural humility in the healthcare field (medical, mental health), which is not surprising given the power-disparity between doctors and patients, and in general, its importance as a result of the ever-increasing cultural diversity across various societies and countries. Cultural humility is further characterized as a process-oriented approach as opposed to an end product because, as you know, learning doesn’t stop.

A wooden sign with a word "DIVERSITY" written in white.

According to some researchers, it encompasses three factors. The first is a “lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique.” The second is a willingness to “fix power imbalances” and the third is developing “partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others.” As you can see, these factors are broad enough to be used beyond the healthcare field and apply to other industries and within your own social circles. Most, if not all, of us, defer to experts when we don’t have the knowledge to make informed decisions about our health, political issues, car repairs, etc. (yes, there’s Google, but still…). And sometimes their knowledge/education and experience can be intimidating, leading us to accept their diagnoses, analyses, or feedback as gospel (as Reagan said, “trust, but verify”).

In situations where you might be the expert and have to interface with people that you’re helping, it’s important to recognize that power-imbalances exist, and while you may not think too much about this because you treat your patients, those who report to you, the barista at the coffee shop, your housekeeper, etc., with respect, they may still find you intimidating. Sometimes it may not be due to anything you’ve done, it’s just that you’re imposing for who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Or it could be that your soul disturbs their demons (LOL…too harsh?!?!). But seriously, you’ve never threatened these folks, you’re not a braggart, and you don’t talk down to them.

Whether you interact with them professionally or personally, more self-evaluation might be warranted on your part (check out my post on self-awareness for strategies). If you interface with them regularly because they’re friends, family, or colleagues, part of cultivating humility involves taking steps to ease the tension (or the proverbial elephant in the room). So don’t feel guilty or shrink yourself in order to make others feel better about themselves. But don’t be an asshole either. And just like the bullies that tormented you in your teenage years, these people too deserve your sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility.

When people tell me that I’m intimidating, my first reaction is confusion (and points to my tendency not to take myself too seriously; and maybe also highlights my lack of self-awareness to the extent that I don’t find my accomplishments as bodacious as others do). Sometimes I feel guilty or feel the need to downplay my accomplishments. But lately, when someone tells me they find me intimidating, I try to find out why, and if the reason is that I’m educated, cultured, well-spoken, etc. (their words, not mine), I’m less likely to feel guilty or feel the need to shrink myself to make them feel better.

It’s not my – or your – job to ensure that an insecure person feels better about themselves. How someone reacts to you is in THEIR control, not yours. And (for the third time) just like the bullies that tormented you in your teenage years, these people too deserve your sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility.

Authentic Humility

I highlighted appreciative and self-abasing humility earlier not because they’re formal, agreed-upon types recognized by the scientific community, but instead to shed light on what I’m calling authentic humility, which includes a healthy sense of self, an appreciation of others, the willingness to learn, and an understanding that you don’t have to minimize yourself and your accomplishments to make others feel better. Likewise, you don’t have to feel inferior and insecure about others’ successes (don’t be silly). You can celebrate others’ accomplishments knowing that it doesn’t take anything away from you; just as those who possess authentic humility will celebrate your successes knowing that it doesn’t take away from their accomplishments (they’re badasses, just like you).

IMHO, part of the problem in feeling insecure about others’ badassery (promotions, wealth, etc.) is the underlying notion of scarcity rampant in capitalist societies that propagate a need for material things (not want, but need); with marketing ploys that incite a fear of missing out (FOMO) if you don’t go out and buy, buy, buy! So you’re constantly buying the coolest gadgets, cars, shoes, etc., operating under the assumption that having lots of things makes you superior to others.

This is being prideful and measuring your worth based on stuff, and not at all about being humble. I’m not saying you can’t have nice things. I like nice things too. But you don’t have to feel the need to constantly keep up with the Jones’ (or Wilsons, Griffiths, or whomever you’re trying to keep up with), especially if you’re putting yourself in debt to do so.

Living your life as if resources are scarce is a delusional trap that will often leave you feeling empty and jealous of others (what’s meant for you will find youwith hard work and persistence). Coupled with an insecure attachment and weak identity formation, you’re more likely to feel resentful and envious when the people around you are successful. Becoming aware of these things is the first step in developing (or restoring) a healthy sense of self in relation to others. Overall, you can be a humble badass with nice things and still not think you’re better than others.

Benefits of Humility

Yes, there are definitely benefits to being humble. For one, people who are humble have stronger social relationships and are more willing to mend broken ones. They’re more generous and helpful. They also exhibit more gratitude and experience a higher degree of group acceptance and popularity. They take pride in their achievements but still have a balanced sense of self. They’re more likely to poke fun at themselves and not take life’s challenges too seriously. And of course, they’re more willing to view challenges as learning opportunities. They also tend to be happier, open to new experiences, more honest, and nicer people to be around.

Humility In The Age Of Smart Machines

There’s an entire book on humility in the Information Age. The crux is that we’re on the cusp of a “societal transformation” where smart machines will perform at a much higher level and take over millions of jobs. So in order to stay relevant, humans must up their game and excel at skills that machines cannot perform well. These include creativity, higher-order critical thinking, innovation, and “high emotional engagement with other humans.”

The a human hand and a robot hand.

The authors identify humility as the “crucial mindset” that underlies this “NewSmart,” which includes a realistic sense of self, the ability to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, and a commitment to learning as a lifelong pursuit (sounds like the definition of humility that was discussed earlier, no?!?!). So instead of trying to keep up with smart machines, we need to excel at the very characteristics that make us human and set us apart from machines (emotional intelligence, self-awareness, humility, empathy, gratitude, kindness, etc.).

How Humble Are You?

Are you curious to know where you fall on the humility spectrum (it’s not a zero-sum game)? Then I highly recommend you take the HEXACO personality inventory. It’s anonymous and provides you with results that can be downloaded and reviewed at your leisure. Each of the six dimensions includes 4-5 facets that give you more in-depth information about your scores. For example, for the humility-honesty dimension, the facets are sincerity, fairness, greed-avoidance, and modesty. I took it and found it very useful. For this dimension, I scored very high on sincerity, fairness, and modesty, but a bit lower than average on greed-avoidance (I told you earlier that I like nice things, didn’t I?!?! You can be generous and still want nice things!).

You can also take the HEXACO on behalf of someone else, but regardless of whether you take it to learn more about yourself or about a loved one, remember, this is a tool to help you explore, NOT a scientific diagnosis. So be cautious and answer the questions honestly based on who you are, NOT what you aspire to be. If you’re not too thrilled about the results, then you can aim to become a better version of yourself with much self-reflection, evaluation, and honesty. You can also team up with someone you love and trust and use it as an opportunity to learn more about each other.

Parting Words

In the individualistic, selfie nation we’re a part of, it’s easy to dismiss humility as a negative trait or one that makes you weak in the eyes of others. Cultivating humility doesn’t mean that you’re going to let people walk all over you. Nor does it mean that you can’t be confident and proud of your accomplishments. It means recognizing that as much of a badass as you are, you’re not infallible and not superior to others. This is especially true if you use money, fame, materialism and where you went to school as yardsticks to measure your worth. At the end of the day, the blood that runs through your veins is the same color as mine and others.

We’re all in this together and no one escapes the reality that our time on Earth is limited and that we all eventually meet the same fate, we just don’t know where we are in THAT line. Whether your casket is gold and mine is unfinished wood, it doesn’t matter because you can’t take the things that you use to define your self-worth and superiority with you (like the Egyptians did).

So why not be a person that’s remembered for his/her humility, kindness, generosity, sense of humor, etc.? Striving to be the best version of yourself doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic life. But if you possess at least a modicum of decency, you’ll want to ensure that humility is something that you’re remembered for when all else is said and done.

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

Cultivating Self-Awareness In A Selfie World

What does it mean to be self-aware? Is it about being confident in who you are? Is your sense of self aligned with others’ perceptions of who you are? Or do you find yourself coming to blows with someone who tells you that you’re full of yourself, hot-headed, impatient, etc., because you KNOW they’re wrong (damn straight!) How does self-awareness develop? Do bicultural or bilingual people have different self-awareness frames? Why is self-awareness important?

Rule #4 of the Ten Rules focuses on the idea that we experience similar – often negative – challenges until we become aware and change our perception and behavior (for example, dating the same type of person that won’t commit, experiencing similar issues with coworkers or bosses no matter how many times you switch jobs, etc.). As one of the lessons in Rule #4, awareness is about being attuned to your behavior and surroundings.

It’s about understanding how you view yourself in relation to others (internal), and how others view you (external). It’s being conscious of your behavior, and attempting to fix negative ones that lead to unhealthy patterns because according to Rule #4, “something within you keeps drawing you to the same kind of person or issue.” Once you recognize that you’re on a hamster wheel – dealing with the same issues or coming across the same types of people, you might ask yourself: “Why does this shit always happen to me?” But when you check your ego and look inward, you’ll recognize that it’s not really THEM, it’s YOU (sorry to be so blunt…but I’m really trying to help).

So when the lightbulb goes off and you’re willing to dig deeper to put an end to unhealthy patterns, you should be proud because not a lot of people are willing to do this in order to change their perspective and circumstances for the better. You don’t necessarily need years of therapy to figure this out. There are strategies to turn you into a self-aware badass, but it starts with examining your unhealthy patterns. So let’s explore what psychologists and others have to say about self-awareness.

In The Beginning

The notion of “know thyself” dates back to the ancient Greeks, stated as “know thy measure” in the works of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. For Avicenna, the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era, “our awareness of ourselves is our very existence” (deep stuff). Among others, William James, the father of Western psychology, discussed the processes of self-awareness in his seminal work (The Principles of Psychology), stating that the “whole internal equilibrium shifts with every pulse of change” (the only constant is change…we change…things change). According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, people lack self-awareness because our behaviors are the result of unconscious forces, and that the best we can do is explain our behaviors away…without much understanding of their root causes.

Man holding his face in his hands with wires hanging from it and from the opening in his face.

In 1972, a unified theory of self-awareness was developed by two Western psychologists, who proposed that “when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves” (similar to what I said earlier but in more sophisticated terms). Since then, the literature on self-awareness and its related terms (insight, self-consciousness, mindfulness, introspection, self-reflection) have expanded, to include self-awareness in emerging computational systems (a topic we will not be discussing here). Also, let’s not forget the popularity of emotional intelligence (EI), with self-awareness identified as its key component. Basically, to be emotionally intelligent is to possess a high level of self-awareness (EI is another topic I’ll hold off discussing here because I intend to write a post about it…yay!).

The Science of Self-Awareness

Without getting too caught up in the intricacies of self-awareness in the academic world, just know that a shitload of research has been conducted (check out this piece if you’re curious, or this one by an academic who believes that there’s too much research out there without much consensus). And not only that, but the academic research also focuses on different types of self-awareness, which isn’t worth detailing here because it doesn’t have much practical relevance (so I’ll spare you).

In terms of when self-awareness develops, researchers estimate that it’s after the first year of a child’s life (visual self-awareness…a child sees him-/herself in a mirror). The added component of emotions and thinking about the self in relation to others is said to develop around the second year of life. There’s also an interesting distinction made between the levels of consciousness.

The four levels of awareness include unconsciousness where you’re unaware of the information you’re processing (being nonresponsive to self and environment). This doesn’t mean you’re in a comatose state, it’s an extension of Freud’s idea (about not knowing the root causes of your behavior), and includes being unaware of how much THAT information about yourself, others, and your environment influences you without you having a clue. Then there’s consciousness where you’re aware of external stimuli, or things outside yourself such as your environment (but you’re probably not at your most introspective at this level).

A mask with zipper unzipped halfway.

This is followed by the third level, self-awareness, which I think we’ve covered (no?!?!). Finally, there’s meta-self-awareness where you’re self-aware and aware that all of your attention is focused on you (no, this doesn’t make you a narcissist…it’s usually a fleeting state…unless it’s all you do, then you might have issues to work out). The meta-self-awareness level makes me think of the selfie phenomenon that’s plagued our existence (am I right?!?!). Or what some refer to as the cult of self, where everyone thinks they’re special and unique and feel the need to constantly blast it across their social media platforms.

FYI: I’m not against selfies, but when someone takes dozens of photos a day and posts them to their social media accounts, it’s hard not to wonder whether they’re obsessed with themselves or whether they think of anyone else other than themselves (jus’ sayin’). Not judging…just observing.

The Emotional Cost of Self-Awareness

Some researchers believe that most of us aren’t self-aware because as a species, this evolutionary milestone has led to NOT thinking about what’s going on around us, allowing us to operate on autopilot, or what’s referred to as a wandering mind. Some agree that self-awareness doesn’t always lead to affective well-being, but that this depends on the strategy employed to achieve self-awareness. If it’s reflective (I made a mistake and what I did was not good, but now I know better), then affective well-being can be achieved; but not if it’s ruminative (why do I always do stupid things?).

The Mindful Self

As a case in point that you can be self-aware and engage in mindfulness, a few researchers have come up with the concept of the mindful self, a “mindfulness-enlightened self-view and attitude developed by internalizing and integrating the essence of Buddhist psychology into one’s self-system.” Some examples include being able to view yourself and others from a more objective perspective, practicing non-attachment, and viewing the self as changeable.

This stands in contrast to Western psychological views of the self as a “definable…entity with particular characteristics, universal needs, and…predictable developmental thrusts.” So basically, according to the view of the mindful self, the reason why you suffer is because of your inability to practice nonattachment (speaks to our consumerism…materialism…the notion that those with the most stuff are the coolest), and your idea of an “independent, permanent self” (seeing yourself as a unique, separate entity…disconnected from those less-special others).

If you practice meditation and mindfulness, then you’ve already incorporated Buddhist philosophy into your life. And while meditation and mindfulness have become all the rage, it can be challenging to practice initially unless you’re dedicated. But most people give up because it takes time to work up to actually quieting your mind (it’s been a challenge for me). Also, if you’re a part of Western society where individualistic values are the norm (my post on forgiveness discusses some of this), nonattachment might be hard to practice. I can understand non-attachment to material things (cars, homes, jewelry, etc.) because, after all, you can’t take it with you when you die (like the Egyptians did), but nonattachment to the people and animals you love?!?! This is a tough one for me.

I’m skittish about getting another dog since putting down our last one (Zeus) 14 years ago because the thought of having to do so is still painful. So like it or not, some of the practices that come with meditation and mindfulness are difficult to internalize (there, I said it!). You’re a product of the society you’re a part of and undoing most of the conditioning and socializing can be a challenge (but not impossible!).

The Generalized Other

A display of mannequin heads of various colors on a wall.

The sociologist George H. Mead was instrumental in expanding psychology’s definition of self and self-awareness from introspection (internal) to a more sociological one or within a social context (external). After all, we’re social beings and don’t operate in a vacuum (unless you’re living in a cabin in the woods without any interaction with others…but you wouldn’t be able to survive as a baby to get to the point where you’ve now become an island unto yourself).

For Mead, the generalized other developed over the lifespan through interactions with others. In this “game” (life) you’re “required to learn not only responses of specific others but behaviors associated with every position on the field.” When these are internalized, you come to see yourself as part of the game – a “system of organized actions.” Does this mean that we play various roles depending on who we’re playing the game with? Yes. Your roles and sense of self vary as a part of a family (parent, sibling), workgroup (boss colleague), or in a relationship (husband, wife). Those who are bilingual “possess two different…‘selves’ which are language-specific…” (as a bilingual, I can attest to this).

Regardless, we’re not pretending or putting on a show; it’s just that certain characteristics are more salient depending on the social context. For example, at work, you might be more subdued and cooperative. At home, you might be more assertive and less-guarded, and with friends, you might be the life of the party – the first to chug down alcohol like prohibition is looming and sing like a pop star while dancing on the bar. Now if you do that at work, you’d probably have to look for another job. And if you treat your significant other like a child, you’ll probably be sleeping on the couch (more often).

Benefits of Self-Awareness

As with gratitude and forgiveness, self-awareness has a number of benefits. Reflective self-awareness is associated with positive psychological adjustment and better self-knowledge, which leads to more productive self-regulation and psychological well-being. Self-awareness increases your ability to take responsibility for your actions and help control anti-social tendencies. It also helps cultivate self-compassion, and increases the ability to engage in perspective-taking, and results in sympathy and compassion for others.

Monkey staring into a mirror.

Self-awareness also increases self-esteem when achievement is attributed to internal factors (I’m competent and work very hard). But if you attribute your failures to internal factors (I’m stupid, I can’t do anything right), or your successes to external factors (The task was easy, I got lucky), then you have to develop confidence in your abilities. On the flip side, if you attribute your failures to external factors (It’s not my fault, they made me mad and I had to punch them…the system is rigged so that’s why I failed), then you need to cultivate self-awareness and learn to take responsibility for your part in whatever goes awry.

It may surprise most people who know me, but I used to attribute my successes to lucky breaks and kindness from others (God loves me! The stars are aligned!). It took some time to see that – while luck might play a role – my achievements are the result of persistence, hard work, and intellect (if I may so). Similarly, when it comes to failures, my first instinct was to go inward and identify my deficiencies (I’m not that smart, I must have pissed off God…). But the more I engage in productive self-awareness, perspective-taking, and not making assumptions nor taking things personally, the more I’ve been able to handle failures and settle misunderstandings with others productively.

In reference to how well you know yourself and how others see you, these may be aligned, or differ starkly. And when there’s a big delta between these two it often leads to negative patterns, requiring us to turn inward to figure out what’s pulling those people and circumstances into our world. The willingness to look inward and cultivate self-awareness isn’t easy, but in so doing, it may help you understand what makes you tick and provide you with a realistic view of how others see you.

Strategies To Cultivate Self-Awareness

Self-awareness has been called the meta-skill of the 21st century, with those in professional sectors incorporating it into training in an effort to produce more self-aware business leaders and worker bees. And whether it’s in the boardroom, clinical setting, or classroom, there are a variety of ways to increase self-awareness. Before examining strategies, you have to assess the roadblocks that might be preventing you from digging deeper. These can be mental (thoughts about yourself and others), emotional (feelings about yourself and others), and/or behavioral (your responses).  

Identify your roadblocks. I’ve provided some tools to help you understand your mental, emotional, and behavioral roadblocks. Reviewing these will help you uncover some of the underlying issues that have led to unhealthy patterns. Beyond these questionnaires, you might find it helpful to seek counseling, especially if you’ve experienced trauma or were raised in a dysfunctional home where issues weren’t addressed and unhealthy patterns still exist.

Roadblocks

We generally carry our dysfunctional ways of relating to others into adulthood. As an informal method of identifying your roadblocks, you can start by simply identifying several healthy and unhealthy mental, emotional, and behavioral responses or reactions, and ask one or two trusted family members or friends to provide you feedback about these dimensions.

For example, my healthy mental reactions are skepticism, focused concentration, and an assessment of alternatives (just to see what else is possible). My unhealthy mental reactions are inactivity, decreased concentration, and defeatism. My healthy emotional reactions are joy, gratitude, and surprise. My unhealthy emotional reactions are frustration, sadness, and fear. Lastly, my healthy behavioral responses include showing compassion, being social, and doing nice things for others. My unhealthy behavioral reactions are isolation, sleep disturbances, and abnormal eating habits. (Get the picture?!?! Now you try it.).    

Once you’ve done some work on identifying your roadblocks, you can move on to considering the following strategies that are part and parcel to increasing self-awareness.

Self-awareness questions. Of all the assessment tools on the internet, I found this one to be quite comprehensive, focusing on social, emotional, spiritual/ethical, financial, and career-oriented questions to help you understand yourself better in various contexts. There are a lot of questions, and I urge you to take the time to answer the ones that are relevant to you. Self-discovery requires work, and yes, what you put in is what you’ll get back. Also, for those of you who struggle with self-compassion, this tool will help you assess how compassionate you are toward yourself.

Listening. Are you a good listener? No, I mean are you an engaged listener who’s not thinking about what you’re going to say next as the person you’re conversing with is speaking? (During graduate studies, I had to take an entire course on listening…true story). Turns out, we’re not as great at listening as we think. I bring this up to highlight the need to really hear people when they’re telling you something about how they see you that you may not agree with. If someone says you’re hot-headed, but you disagree and explain your behavior as being caused by someone’s stupidity, then you’re attributing your behavior to external forces and not taking responsibility.

Two tin cans on a string, depicting a telephone.

This is what I meant when I said earlier that if your sense of self and how others view you differ starkly, maybe it’s because you’re not HEARING what they’re saying, or you don’t want to accept it because it’s too painful! If you’re interested in assessing your active listening skills, take this test (I like this assessment because it calculates your score and gives you substantive feedback). And if you’re interested in exploring the art of listening further, here’s an article that lists a dozen different types of listening with detailed explanations.

Self-reflection. How much time, if at all, do you spend reflecting on who you are, what makes you tick, and why that interaction with so-and-so was so awkward? Or do you just operate on autopilot and become uncomfortable when someone (significant other, friend, co-worker) says they want to talk? In order to hone your self-awareness skills, you need to spend time reflecting. I’m not talking about navel-gazing, more like solution-focused introspection.

Journaling is one way to self-reflect. You can focus on a specific aspect of your life (relationships, career, life goals, etc.) and identify what motivates you to be around certain people or to pursue certain goals (start a business). You don’t have to dissect every aspect of your life all the time. But when unhealthy patterns arise (enough to bother you), journaling will help you identify your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If it’s a hassle, then lists may work better.

For instance, if you keep running into the same issues with bosses and co-workers (no matter the job), you can jot down the issue (what happened), your actions, their actions, and the outcome. Chances are you’ll notice patterns, and while it may be true that you just don’t have the best of luck with bosses and co-workers, most likely, your actions are contributing factors. This is when it’s important to go inward and ask yourself if there’s a lesson or two that you’re supposed to be learning in order to shift your perception and approach (What am I supposed to learn here?!?! Patience, humility, acceptance, etc.?).

And if you’re stumped, ask a trusted friend or loved one who has your best interests at heart. But be careful here because while those who care for you can provide much-needed constructive feedback to help you achieve healthier patterns, don’t rely solely on the feedback of others. Intuitively, you know what you need to do to align your values with your behaviors (and vice versa).

At the end of the day, your willingness to become the best version of yourself (a self-aware badass), maintain healthy boundaries, and establish healthier patterns of relating are in your own hands. Lastly, it’s a process and not something that’s accomplished overnight. So be patient and kind to yourself. Happy exploring!

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

Moving Beyond Revenge Fantasies & Learning To Forgive

Forgiveness means letting go of past hurts and grudges. It’s about moving forward without holding the offender responsible for your pain and suffering. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes is just as important as forgiving the offender. Forgiveness can depend on the value you place on a relationship, what the offender has done, and/or whether you think she or he will harm you again. In some cases, forgiveness seems unattainable, but it’s not about letting someone off the hook for hurting you, it’s about not carrying the weight of the anger and pain, and moving past the mentality of victimhood.

When you hear about a mother forgiving her child’s murderer, you might commend her for showing compassion and strength in the face of adversity; or think she’s lost her mind. Or feel a tinge of guilt for being less evolved because you can’t even forgive your spouse for leaving the toilet seat up or the waiter for messing up your order. So how could you ever forgive someone for heinous acts such as murder, torture, or betrayal?

The ability to forgive, at times, is a lot easier said than done. But as someone who has been on the receiving end of what some would consider unforgivable acts (a range of abuse), I’ve learned to forgive for the sake of my well-being (because the burdens of anger and resentment greatly disturb my soul).

In the Ten Rules, forgiveness is one of the lessons under Rule #3 (there are no mistakes, only lessons). And if there are lessons to be learned – even from the most heinous acts – focusing on what you can learn from the person or situation helps you see things in a new light, especially when you’ve had some distance from the offender or offense, and time to reflect. The road to forgiveness is not a straight one, most often, it’s littered with anger, revenge fantasies, pain, guilt, and resentment, but after cycling through these less-than-healthy thoughts/feelings, the capacity to forgive becomes more likely.

Let’s take a look at what psychologists and other academics have to say about forgiveness (‘cause you know they have a lot to say about this too), then we’ll review some strategies to help you on your path…if for nothing else than to unload the anger, pain, and resentment that have weighed you down for far too long (onward!).

The Science of Forgiveness

A multi-color atom.

The literature on forgiveness is packed with different perspectives on what it means to forgive, various types, how people forgive, what makes forgiveness possible (or not), and the benefits of forgiving. Unpacking this might help you see things from a more clinical perspective, which then may encourage you to forgive for your own sake (let that shit go!). If you’re totally intrigued with all things forgiveness, check out this 600-page Handbook of Forgiveness (you’re welcome). Or you could just continue reading my summary of the research (you’re welcome…again. Ha!).

Biology of forgiveness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are not innately wired to forgive. We’re predisposed for retaliation and vengeance as a way to protect against future harm, restore power or self-worth, and promote group cohesion. In some communities or cultures, retaliation is still the preferred method of conflict resolution (for example, the Pashtuns’ code of conduct is Pashtunwali…advocating “eye-for-an-eye” principles). Still, others believe that the capacity to forgive is also a part of human nature.

In more complex societies where laws are codified, we seek punishment for disproportional violence (you kill my son, I seek justice in the courts). Some researchers define revenge, retaliation, and redirected aggression as forms of payback that are natural to humans (and other animal species), and argue that we can rise above our pain and suffering by managing it more humanely (I can be the bigger, more mature person…).

Religion and forgiveness. In all the major religions, forgiveness is a significant virtue. Religious people are taught to ask God for forgiveness. In general, they’re also taught to forgive the transgressions of others (or might be guilted into doing so by being reminded of the mercy of God…as I often was). In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, forgiveness is cultivated as a result of core teachings and meditative practices (these folks are much more equipped to forgive). In the Western World, the modern concept of forgiveness can be traced back to the secularization of divine forgiveness in the 18th-19th centuries (if you want to dive into religion and forgiveness, have at it).

And while the debates continue among theologians and philosophers about what forgiveness is (and isn’t), starting in the 20th century, psychologists used moral development models to assess the capacity to forgive (for more info, see Jean Piaget’s cognitive development model and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development).

Types of forgiveness. There are not only various types, but forgiveness is also a process. Divine forgiveness is when you seek forgiveness from God. Self-forgiveness involves forgiving yourself for transgressions, with guilt and a “determination to change” as key motivating factors. Trait or dispositional forgiveness is about your character and is positively correlated with agreeableness and emotional stability. Intergroup forgiveness, which occurs in a “specific socio-political or cultural context” doesn’t happen at the individual level, and usually takes place as a collective gesture (a leader apologizes on behalf of his/her country to another country or group for past atrocities).

"Coexist" written using a variety of religious symbols.

And of course, there’s forgiveness of an offender, which according to the experts, can be grouped in two distinct varieties (hang in there with me, this is an important distinction that might help you on your path to forgiveness). The first is decisional forgiveness, which is a “behavioral intention to treat the offender as a valued and valuable person.” The second is emotional forgiveness, which is the “replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive…emotions such as empathy, sympathy, compassion or love.” So you can make the decision to forgive, but not do so at the emotional level.

Emotional forgiveness of a stranger or someone you don’t interact with happens when you reach emotional neutrality (indifference…not wishing the person good or ill). But for someone with whom you interact with, the replacement of negative emotions (or neutrality) with positive ones can take time to achieve (if at all); it’s a process. And if you’re able to achieve both decisional and emotional forgiveness, you’re also likely to forget the negative traits associated with the offender (or what a piece of shit she or he is, or can be…okay, that’s harsh…no name-calling!).

Cultural differences & forgiveness. In general, there are similarities across cultures when it comes to practicing forgiveness, with some variation across individualistic (it’s all about me!) and collectivistic (it’s all about we!) groups. At the expense of stereotyping, individualistic cultures (such as ours…the U.S.), are more self-reflexive, viewing relationships as exchanges (tit-for-tat), with a high value of self-forgiveness. Collectivist cultures (not the U.S.; maybe Japan or China), are more interdependent, viewing relationships as communal, with a low value of self-forgiveness. As such, the goal of forgiveness for a person with an individualistic worldview is personal well-being; whereas for a person with a collectivist worldview, it’s social well-being.

One interesting sociological theory about the increased attention on the study of forgiveness in the U.S. is that it was “a response to new historical challenges of coping with interpersonal conflict and resentment in an individualistic” society with declining social support networks. So whereas in collectivist cultures, people have a wide social support network to rely on (family, friends, neighbors, etc.); in individualistic ones, people have fewer, and as a result, turn to therapy and self-help literature to cultivate coping skills. IMHO, I don’t think this is limited to the study of forgiveness, and most certainly encompasses other issues people seek help for (happiness, anxiety, stress, grief, anger, etc.). And why the multi-billion dollar self-help industry continues to flourish.

"Stress" and "Relax" as criss-crossed black street signs.

Physical & psychological outcomes of forgiveness. Studies focused on the physical and psychological effects show that forgiveness can: “aid in cardiovascular recovery from stress” and help to reduce blood pressure; improve mental health for those suffering from a lifetime of stress; decrease anxiety and increase hope and self-esteem; strengthen relationships with others; promote spiritual growth; and lead to a more purposeful life. The flip side – unforgiveness – can lead to “worse mental and physical health; and economic, social, and spiritual problems.” And if all of this isn’t enough to help you understand the importance of just letting that shit go, here’s eight more reasons from a bona fide forgiveness expert.

Do You Have the Capacity to Forgive?

While there are definite benefits to forgiveness, it’s nonetheless challenging for a variety of reasons such as the value of the relationship with the offender, the type and severity of the act, how religious someone is (not that nonreligious people don’t/can’t forgive), the risk of future exploitation by the offender, and how forgiving we are, among other things.

If the information I’ve shared so far piques your curiosity enough to want to assess your propensity to forgive, take the Forgiveness Quiz. I recommend taking it multiple times – each time keeping a specific offender or situation in mind. Your scores will vary, but at least it’ll help you assess where you fall on the forgiveness-unforgiveness continuum.

For me, the topic of forgiveness brings to mind Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements, which are: (1) Be impeccable with your word; (2) Don’t take anything personally; (3) Don’t make assumptions; and (4) Do your best. I bring this up not to veer into some rabbit hole (squirrel!), but to point out how much it influenced my capacity to forgive, and might help you do the same. My short description isn’t enough information on HOW to implement or abide by these agreements, but the link I’ve provided for the book will help you with this, so check it out.

Forgiveness Strategies

Stick figure scratching its head with a red question mark above its head.

In terms of specific strategies, I’ve highlighted some process models below in the hopes that it helps you let go of the anger, bitterness, and pain, and cultivate physical and psychological well-being. I realize that in some instances, forgiveness might not be possible, but it’s my hope that you can at least achieve emotional neutrality and attain self-forgiveness, especially if you hold yourself responsible for anything that’s happened to you. I also recognize that therapeutic interventions might be necessary to help you on your path, so by all means, seek help if you need assistance and guidance.

Process model. This model is a long-term, clinically-oriented one that helps you work through four phases in order to forgive. While you can move through the phases chronologically, you might spend a bit more time in one phase, or go back to a previous phase. So don’t get too hung up on how long it takes you to cycle through. It’s your journey, and your willingness to consider forgiveness (even if it takes a long time) is something that you should be proud of.

(1) Uncovering phase: is about examining potential psychological defenses (denial, projection, etc.) you might be using to redirect the anger or bitterness; becoming aware and confronting your anger and releasing it; and recognizing how the experience has changed you (hopefully for the better!).

(2) Decision phase: includes viewing the offense or offender in a new light, and deciding to forgive, then making a commitment to do so.

(3) Work phase: entails reassessment of the offense or offender and being able to show empathy for the offender; and then accepting the pain of the situation in order to move past it.

(4) Outcome phase: focuses on the lessons you’ve learned from the situation once forgiveness takes place.

Cyclical, pastel-colored arrows.

REACH model. This model comes with a do-it-yourself handbook for those of you who wish to do the work on your own. REACH is also a process model that’s just as effective as the four-phase model. It stands for:

R = Recall the hurt. Accept that you’ve been hurt and that you want to move past victimhood, and no longer want to harbor revenge fantasies.

E = Empathize with your partner (or offender). The offender doesn’t have to be present or involved in the process, you can write a letter or sit in front of an empty chair and state your grievance(s) (as if the offender is sitting across from you).

A = Altruistic gift. Decide that your forgiveness is given unselfishly, reminding yourself of times when you’ve hurt others and how they’ve forgiven you.

C = Commit. Once you’ve forgiven, remind yourself of this if you continue to engage in ruminative thinking about the pain and hurt.

H = Hold onto forgiveness. Go beyond reminding yourself that you forgave, and write it down (in your diary, journal, sticky notes) as a way to help you remain committed.

Self-Forgiveness

When you’re the offender (and if you have any semblance of a conscience), you’re likely to feel guilt and remorse for inflicting pain on someone else. You might replay the offense over and over in your mind, and feel awful about damaging a relationship (friendship, marriage), but punishing yourself by holding on to the shame and guilt is counterproductive. If the person you’ve hurt is not willing to accept your apology and forgive you, it’s still important to forgive yourself (here’s a DIY handbook on self-forgiveness).

Maybe the person needs more time to heal; maybe they don’t value the relationship as much as you do; or maybe the exploitation risk is too high for them. Whatever the reasons, you can at least be comforted in knowing that you’ve tried to repair the relationship (maybe you can try again later).

Sometimes, as the person who’s been hurt or betrayed, you can hold yourself equally responsible for what’s happened to you. This is especially true when you’ve experienced trauma, which broadly “involves exposure to a non-normative event that disrupts one’s self-concept, and at least temporarily, overwhelms one’s ability to cope.” Examples include abuse (physical, sexual, psychological), the sudden death of a loved one, and witnessing violence, among other things. (For more information on trauma, check out these resources).

Being traumatized can result in “negative emotional reactions.” Two broad categories of reactions are self-deprecating (guilt, shame, worthlessness, sadness, powerlessness) and self-protective (outrage, vengefulness, anger, indignation). Keeping in mind the type and severity of the trauma, I’m in agreement with the renowned psychologist, Alice Miller, who asserts that you can never fully recover or be cured (she’s written extensively on childhood trauma). I think with therapy and a willingness to work through your issues, you can learn to cope more effectively with trauma, but it always manifests in some form in adulthood.

For example, if you witnessed violence as a child and haven’t dealt with it (reflection, forgiveness, therapy, etc.), you can exhibit negative emotional reactions towards others who pose a threat to you in adulthood (anger, outrage, revenge). If you were molested as a child, you can carry shame, guilt, and worthlessness into your adult relationships.

Between the ages of 3-5, I was physically abused by my nanny; to the point where my life was threatened every time I was left in her care. She would put chili pepper seeds in my milk (which made me sick); one time she made me stand next to a beehive and hit it with a rock (I had multiple bee stings); and she’d often beat me with a belt buckle and instruct me to tell my parents that my injuries resulted from playing outside (I can go on, but you get the picture).

When I’d tell my parents what she was doing, they had a hard time believing me because she took such good care of my brother. It took a long time for me to feel safe (not until my early 20s) and an equally long time to deal with the anger towards her and my parents. As I worked through self-forgiveness, I was also able to forgive her and my parents (they also had to work through the process of self-forgiveness, shame, and guilt).

Final Words

Again, ruminating over unresolved offenses or injustices leads to unforgiveness, resulting in a snowball of “resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear.” Forgiveness isn’t an easy path, but it’s possible and has to be done on your terms and on your timetable. Sometimes emotional neutrality is the best outcome you can hope for, which is great because at least it signals that you’re past the revenge fantasies and (hopefully) not redirecting your anger. But if you value the relationship and believe that the risk of future exploitation is low, then there’s hope for attaining forgiveness.

A lit candle with a black background.

If you’ve experienced horrible offenses that have left you scarred, especially if the offender is someone you’ve had a relationship with (significant other, family member, etc.), I’m very sorry for what’s happened to you. And if you’ve had enough distance from the situation and are able to focus on the lessons, then I hope you can at least entertain the possibility of forgiveness. Doing so doesn’t mean letting the offender off the hook; it’s about making your well-being a priority and leading a more fulfilling life without allowing the offender to rob you of your peace of mind.

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

The In-Between Phase of Your Life Is NOT A Bus Stop!

There are times when an experience changes you profoundly, marking the end of life as you know it, and heralding a new way of being. These experiences can be as challenging as the sudden death of a loved one, a diagnosis of terminal illness, losing a job, and/or divorce. Or as exciting – yet equally stress-inducing – as the birth of a child, getting married, graduating from school, or landing your dream job.

Sometimes the effects are immediate and quite traumatic, especially if the experience is negative or forced upon you. Other times, the effects only become clear in retrospect, when you have some distance (time heals…almost always). And once clarity sets in, some of the experiences that at first seemed challenging can turn out to be the best things that ever happened to you (divorcing that jerk and meeting someone awesome, leaving a toxic job only to find something much better, getting sober, etc.).

Often, the time between your old life and new one can be riddled with challenges and cause a lot of stress, until predictability and structure are restored (Yay! I know what to expect!). We’re creatures of habit and don’t do well in the gray area of uncertainty because we’re hard-wired to avoid it, although uncertainty is thought to boost learning because it forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you think differently about solving problems (click here if you want a super-duper scientific version of the study).

In this sense, the IN-BETWEEN PHASE shouldn’t be thought of as a bus stop, where you feel like you’re waiting around for the next big thing to happen. It sometimes feels that way, but I believe there’s much to learn and explore during these so-called bus stops. Sometimes it becomes apparent in hindsight that you wasted time waiting (and waiting), leaving you to kick your own ass for worrying so much, not being present, nor enjoying the time you had to explore your interests.

Abandoned bus stop with colorful graffiti on its walls.

I’ve had my share of in-between phases that I’ve treated like bus stops, where uncertainty looms and I’m just trying to get back to a routine free from chaos, vowing never to allow the bad experiences to happen again. But when change is thrust upon you, it’s God (or the universe) nudging you in another direction, helping you make course corrections that are long overdue. My experiences with in-between phases are best represented by a U-shaped curve. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was more comfortable with uncertainty. I’m not sure if this was because I was too dense to recognize how bad the situation was or whether my faith was so unwavering that I just knew all would be fine (maybe a bit of both).

As I got older, I came to expect a certain level of stability, and was easily thrown off-kilter when God pulled the rug from under me (WTF?!?! Why?!?!). Now, in my 40s, my unsteady faith is often restored more quickly because I know that I’ll be okay and eventually land right side up (a bit bruised perhaps…but wiser and more resilient nonetheless). And as a result, I’m learning to deal more productively with the in-between phases, one that’s significant enough to detail below as a way to restore your faith and remind you that “there” is no better than “here” (Rule #6 of the Ten Rules); patience really is a virtue; humility is born of challenges; trust requires the courage to believe you’ll end up where you’re supposed to; and humor goes a long, long way.

The Mother of All In-Between Phases

April 2001 to August 2002 represents one of my longest in-between phases (or bus stops, if you prefer). During this timeframe, the following happened: I was laid off from the dot.com I worked at (as was everyone else); graduated with a master’s degree in psychology; lost my beloved maternal grandmother suddenly; ended my relationship with someone whom I thought I was going to marry; moved out of my apartment and into my parents’ house; applied and was eventually accepted into a Ph.D. program at my dream school; and went on a humanitarian trip to Kabul, Afghanistan (my birth land). It was one hell of a rollercoaster with more changes than I wished.

White keyboard and mouse with a big red button that reads: Get me out of here.

The death of my grandmother overshadowed all else since it was the first domino to fall, which appeared to trigger all the other events that followed. My company had given me a very generous severance package, which made it easy to put off any decisions related to my career. I was also at the tail-end of my studies and needed just a few more classes before I was done. Up until September 2001, I grieved, spent a lot of time visiting family, asked God a lot of WHY questions, and sat in my apartment living room blankly staring at the TV (sometimes it wasn’t even on). I was paralyzed by indecision because so many things had happened. Fearing the burden of having another thing go sideways, I decided not to make any major decisions.

On a subconscious level, I probably thought that all the decisions I’d made up to that point were all wrong (yes, I’m being hyperbolic), and God was punishing me for making bad decisions. But when my anxiety about being indecisive started to outweigh my avoidance of making decisions, I knew I’d turned a corner. I’d narrowed my choices down to two: stay in Silicon Valley and job-hunt or pursue a Ph.D. The latter entailed sacrifices I wasn’t sure I was ready to make such as becoming a poor student again, studying for entrance exams, and living with my parents, to name a few. But pursuing a Ph.D. was a goal I’d harbored since the end of my undergraduate studies. Back then, it seemed too far-fetched.

Forked dirt road with trees and bushes.

Making the decision to pursue my Ph.D. proved that I no longer believed it to be impossible. Once I got over the fear of failure, I committed to it, knowing that once I moved out of my apartment, there was no turning back. I had no idea how all of it was going to turn out, but I kept my focus on my daily to-do list and persevered (submit 30-day vacate notice, rent a moving truck, tell my parents I was moving back home, research Ph.D. programs, connect with my professors and request recommendation letters, etc.).

It took a little adjusting to be under my parents’ roof again. They were excited to have me home, but I wasn’t as excited (don’t get me wrong, my parents are wonderful). It was quite a humbling experience because moving back in with your parents after being on your own for so many years is hard on the ego (ouch!). I’d been away for almost a decade. But at least I no longer had to worry about rent and bills and could focus on applying to schools. And while there were no guarantees that I’d get into my dream school, it was the first time in my life that I had laser-sharp focus on a goal and the will to pursue it so intensely.

Home Sweet Home wooden sign.

After months of waiting and agonizing over whether I’d get in – the envelope arrived. It wasn’t paper thin (usually signifying a rejection). Hands sweaty and shaking, I opened it carefully. Holy f*cking shit!!!! I was headed to my dream school (University of California Berkeley) to pursue a Ph.D. After jumping up and down a few times, I fell to my knees with my face cupped in my hands and started crying like a baby. All the anxiety, pain, grief, anger, uncertainty, sweat, and tears of the last several months had brought me to this moment: one of the happiest in my life. I did it! I pursued my goal with a vengeance, with nothing to guide me other than faith, and by golly, it all worked out (halle-freakin-luja!).

"I Believe in Me" sign.

But before I started school (again!), I was offered another opportunity of a lifetime: to return to Afghanistan to do some humanitarian work with a group of other expats. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to return to Afghanistan – my birth land. My family immigrated right before the Soviet Invasion in 1979 when I was five. Obviously, I had no concept of why we fled, all I knew was that we were going to America to visit my favorite aunt.

Growing up, my parents would tell me and my brother nostalgic stories of an idyllic Afghanistan, one completely different from the nation eventually ruled by the Taliban. There were record stores, movie theaters, mini-skirts, platform heels, educational opportunities for men and women, and not a burka in sight. I held on to those memories, thinking that I’d never be able to return for a visit.

September 11th changed all that, and when the opportunity dropped into my lap, I didn’t think twice and immediately signed up to go. My dad was horrified at the idea; my mom, however, was very supportive. I emptied my savings account to pay for the trip (talk about throwing caution to the wind!). It was a life-changing experience for sure, details of which I’ll share in another post.

Lessons Learned & Learning Lessons

Among other things, I credit the Ten Rules for helping me gain clarity about where I’d been and where I was headed. Although plagued with fear and grief (but still trying to appreciate the good stuff), I trusted that I’d end up where I was supposed to, and learned some lessons that have stayed with me ever since. Admittedly, I still stumble and have to be reminded – via experiences – that things DO eventually work out.

“There” Is No Better Than “Here”

This is Rule #6 of the Ten Rules and includes the “if-only” disease where you set conditions on your happiness, leaving you to strive for another “there.” My in-between phases have taught me to be grateful for where I am, without projecting too far into the future. Of course, I have to continue to remind myself of this fact, but I’ve become a lot better at it, and in so doing, I’m less likely to be plagued by the “if-only” disease. 

"Future Is Now" sign, white block letters on a black background.

Practice. When you recognize that you’re plagued by the “if-only” disease, think about your in-between phases and recall the events that transpired. Did you land right side up? Did things eventually work out better than you expected? What did you learn from those experiences? The more you do this, the less anxious you’ll be about where you find yourself in the present. Also, you might want to practice the gratitude exercises I wrote about in a previous post.

Patience Is A Virtue … Really, It Is

This is one of my hardest lessons that I continue to struggle with, which I think has more to do with my Type A tendencies than the actual fear of doom. One of the character traits of the Type A personality is the “constant sense of urgency.” So if I’ve learned anything from my in-between phases it’s that I need to be more patient with myself and others.

Practice. Are you impatient? If so, what triggers it and how do you feel when you’re struggling to be more patient? Identify your triggers (mean people, delays, etc.), and ask yourself whether this – whatever “this” is – will matter in a year or five years. And when the answer is yes, push yourself further to question WHY it matters because sometimes it’s about the need for control. So if you’re a control freak, ask yourself why. As you identify your triggers, the significance of the thing that you’re impatient about, and whether you’re a control freak, you’ll inevitably calm yourself down. And each time you forget and wind yourself back up again, think through this process. The more you do it, the more patience you’ll exercise.

Humility Is Born Of Challenges

Silhouette of person kneeling with hands clasped in front of him, with head down.

One of the most significant lessons from my in-between phases is humility. There’s nothing more humbling than challenging experiences that you weren’t expecting. Often, you forget that you don’t have total control over your life, and when God (or the universe) intervenes to remind you of that fact, it can be demoralizing. For me, being laid off, losing my grandmother suddenly, moving back in with my parents, and seeing first-hand how lucky I was to live in the U.S. (as opposed to Afghanistan), not only humbled me but also helped me cultivate immense gratitude. Being humbled by these experiences was actually a huge blessing because it helped me deal constructively with resentment, victimhood, anger, and sadness (because no one has time for that shit! Am I right?!?!).

Practice. Are you humble? That is, do you have a strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, in addition to acknowledging your limitations? Do you have a healthy sense of who you are in relation to others (how others see you versus how you see yourself)? Do you think you’re better than others? Do you gain satisfaction from the suffering of others, especially those you don’t like? If you answered “yes” to the last two questions, then humility is a lesson you need to work on. If you view life as a Ferris wheel of upward and downward spirals, then you know about the impermanence of all things. So if you’re in a good place and are happy that another is suffering, don’t get too smug because no one goes through life unscathed.

Holding on to anger, hatred, and/or resentment does more harm to YOU than the person(s) it’s directed at. So let that shit go, and be open to understanding who you are through others’ eyes. Ask family and friends for their honest appraisal of how you come across. This is the best way to learn about yourself and institute changes that make your relationships stronger, and cultivates self-awareness. It might not be easy to hear constructive criticism, but merely being open to it puts you on the path of cultivating humility.

Trust Requires Courage

Trust, among other things, is having confidence in your ability to judge right from wrong and make decisions in your best interest. Sometimes you have nothing to go on but faith, which requires courage. Often, the enormity of your courage becomes apparent in retrospect (it did for me). Every step you take towards a goal illustrates trust in your abilities and boosts your confidence to stay the course. Sure, the moment you experience a setback you might doubt whether your goal is possible or whether you’re of sound mind (what was I thinking?!?!?). And the more unsure you are of yourself, the more weight you’ll give to others’ input.

Green sign with white arrows and the words "trust" and "fear" on it.

My parents were very worried that I was only applying to one school. Most people apply to multiple schools, reducing the proverbial risk. Not me, I was applying to Berkeley and by God, that’s where I was going. I told myself I’d reapply the following year if I didn’t get in the first time. I recognize that I had a strong support network to fall back on and some of you might not have this luxury, but if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way even if it’s juggling a day a job and working toward your goal on your own time.

Practice. Rule #9 of the Ten Rules stipulates that all your answers lie within, followed by Rule #10, which states that you’ll forget all of this at birth. Socialization or indoctrination into society begins at home and continues throughout life and the messages you receive from your family, friends, and society at large form the basis of how you see yourself and others. It also drowns out your inner voice. You have the capacity to access your inner voice and instinctively know what you should be doing. Sometimes this is described as a feeling or hunch (I get a bad vibe from that person and stay away from him/her, but I don’t exactly know why! My job is not fulfilling and I dread going into work.) In the scientific, proof-obsessed Western society we’re a part of, you’re likely to be labeled a New Age hippie who probably smokes a lot of dope if your reasoning for making decisions is solely based on hunches.

Quieting your mind to gain access to your inner wisdom can be challenging, but a worthwhile pursuit nonetheless. Meditation practices can help you improve “sustained attention” while mindfulness can help anchor you to the present and become more aware of your choices. Books such as Finding Your Own North Star include exercises that help you pinpoint your fears and reconnect with your “essential self” (I highly recommend it!). Of course, all this depends on how restless your soul is and whether it’s restless enough to actually prompt you to do something about it. The choice is yours.

Humor Goes A Long Way

If you take yourself too seriously and find it difficult to laugh at the absurdities of life, then you’ll be miserable and make others suffer with you. One of the best compliments someone can give me is that I’m funny. I love to laugh and love to make others laugh even if it’s at my expense. Studies show that it really does have positive effects. For example, humor can increase hope. Social laughter releases endorphins, “reinforcing and maintaining human social bonds,” and males and females alike find partners with a sense of humor more desirable.

A person in a beige bunny rabbit costume walking a wooden surface.

Practice. Is it difficult for you to find humor when things look bleak? Instead of wallowing in misery and ruminating over how much your life sucks, why not try to distract yourself with activities such as watching funny movies, shows, or YouTube videos; hanging out with friends; and asking yourself whether your challenges are in fact first-world problems (seriously, ask that question.) I’m not trying to minimize your situation, I’m asking you to view things from the perspective of whether it’s a life-death situation, or whether you’re blowing things out of proportion. I recognize that horrendous events are no laughing matter. Experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing.

After the challenging events of my 2001-2002 in-between phase, I found myself asking God if I was cursed, or if he had anything else to throw my way. Then I’d chuckle thinking how stupid it was for me to think that my life was ruined because I had to move back in with my parents (if anything, I needed to thank my lucky stars that I had such a great support system.) As I moved through my in-between phase, I was able to open up and hang out with family and friends regularly, indulge in a lot of romantic and dark comedies, and crack jokes at my expense.

Peak-End Rule

Ultimately, the impressions you form about the experiences you have are subjective and not based on an objective weighing of the good and bad parts of an experience. The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic by which you attribute feelings to an experience at the peak point, which then determines the extent to which you deem it positive or negative. For example, although you got divorced and are in a much happier relationship or marriage, your thoughts/feelings about your previous marriage might be negative because the peak point included multiple screaming matches (or what you subjectively based your feelings on).

Mountain peak with clear blue skies and sunshine.

This is not surprising given that your view of the world and your place in it is highly skewed and filtered through a subjective guide or set of rules based on socialization and life experiences. Becoming aware of this fact helps you view things in a more practical manner where you remain focused on the lessons learned (what did I learn from this? What’s the lesson?); as opposed to how you were victimized and how justified you are in holding onto anger and resentment. At the end of the day, the latter will lead to a more constructive perspective that strengthens your resolve, cultivates forgiveness and wisdom, restores peace of mind, and helps you move forward in life.

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

Six Strategies To Increase Gratitude In Your Life

Growing up, my parents would often say something like “in all instances, one should be grateful” or “no matter how grateful we are, it’s never enough.” As a kid, I just nodded and stared at them blankly (just like when my dad said, “don’t ruin your credit!”). As a teenager, it would irritate me when they’d say it after I shared how unfair it was that a kid picked on me at school for wearing generic Reebok sneakers, or that my brother played with my toys without asking, or that I didn’t get a second helping of ice cream.

My parents’ usual responses included statements about needing to be grateful for having more than one pair of shoes, a toy chest full of toys, and for being able to afford ice cream in the first place! This, of course, left me irritated. I couldn’t understand their reasoning: why would you be grateful for negative things?!?! Surely, my parents had it all wrong, or at the very least, never really listened to me, I thought.

As I got older, I realized how wrong I was and how right they were. Maybe it was based on the fact that they were immigrants from a third-world country and complaining about first-world problems showed ingratitude. Maybe it was innate and something that they’d inherited from their parents. Whatever it was, it rubbed off on me because the older I got, the more I agreed with their sentiment that practicing gratitude improves your life, keeps you humble, and increases your abundance (you must be grateful for what you already have if you want more, right?!?!).

What Is Gratitude?

As I mentioned in my previous post, gratitude is about giving thanks for all the goodness that surrounds you, appreciating your life, what you have, the people in it, and all that’s available to you. (It’s also a lesson under Rule #6 in the Ten Rules for Being Human.) Gratitude has been defined by philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries, with psychologists as the most recent group to take a stab at it (hell, there’s a whole compendium on The Psychology of Gratitude, if you’re interested).

The major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., view it as a significant human character, resulting in a life well-lived. And now with science backing up what wise sages have known all along, more and more people are jumping on board and looking for ways to increase it in their lives. (But why does science have to validate it before we come to recognize its importance?!?! That’s a whole other post, people.)

The Science of Gratitude

A metal cart with lab beakers of various sizes and shapes.

The research on gratitude explores many facets such as individual, social, and cultural factors that help explain why some practice it more than others; the physical and psychological health benefits; and the many ways gratitude is defined and measured by various disciplines such as philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology, to name a few. The following is a summary of the science of gratitude (because anything more would turn this into an academic paper and we’re not interested in that, are we?!?!).

While there are a lot of studies on gratitude, choosing which ones to highlight in this post would be a taxing exercise (and my days of writing exhaustive literature reviews are over!). Luckily, I found a very recent, well-written collection of studies on gratitude at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (you’re welcome!). Making sense of academic research can be frustrating sometimes because the answers don’t always seem clear-cut (which is probably why your average person stays away from academic journals). But IMHO it’s better than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants pseudoscience that’s paraded as concrete proof that something exists.

In academic research, one study can show evidence that something exists, but another can show different results. Sometimes if you’re comparing studies, you might be comparing apples and oranges, so comparisons might not be helpful. Also, when studying phenomena like human behavior, gratitude, happiness, etc., you’re not talking about CAUSATION. (There’s no such thing when studying human behavior.) Even in medical studies, researchers are hesitant about using the word causation. In the social sciences, it’s about correlation because researchers understand that there can be multiple variables that account for a study’s results.

So take a deep breath and come explore with me. Or not, and just skip to the part where I highlight some strategies to increase the practice of gratitude in your life. (Whatever floats your boat!)

Two little girls photographed from behind, holding hands and walking across a wooden bridge.

Individual, social, and cultural factors. As far as individual factors, the results are mixed. You can’t say that gratitude is a trait such as the broad Big Five personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness). But someone who’s socialized to be more grateful will display it more than someone who isn’t socialized to do so (ahem, yours truly). As far as social and cultural factors, religiousness is strongly associated with gratitude. Prayer, for instance, induces gratitude, which can be a reason for the strength of the association between religiousness and gratitude (but if you’re not religious or a believer, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less grateful).

As for cultural factors, how gratitude is defined and practiced has a significant influence on its prevalence. For example, women are more likely than men to practice gratitude. American men express less gratitude than German men. People in the United Kingdom define gratitude negatively (indebtedness, guilt, awkwardness) than their American counterparts, and are less likely to practice it. And as for parenting, the research shows that parents have a strong mediating factor, but this doesn’t explain the “hows/whys” (and you shouldn’t be too hung up on these things unless you’re a scholar who wants to study the intricacies of gratitude). 

Physical and psychological benefits. The research seems more definitive when it comes to the health benefits of practicing gratitude. In general, practicing gratitude is correlated with better physical health, “less fatigue, better sleep, and lower levels of cellular inflammation.” Those with chronic illness report less depression when practicing gratitude, and better sleep when engaging in gratitude exercises (journaling, for example). The studies exploring psychological benefits have shown that those dealing with substance abuse who practice gratitude show improved coping strategies.

Practicing gratitude has also shown to be effective in helping those with mental illness lower their stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s also helped people engage in fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts, and report higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. For those suffering from trauma, practicing gratitude helps them become more resilient (aka post-traumatic growth). Lastly, practicing gratitude has helped people cultivate other virtues such as “patience, humility, and wisdom.”

The word "mental health" in capital letters with associated terms displayed in various colors and sizes.

But what about when you experience challenges, like really horrendous things such as the sudden death of a loved one, a job loss, a terrible accident, or an unforgivable betrayal? I honestly can’t and won’t – in the context of this post – tell you to focus on what you have and give thanks for it (that’s too flippant). Experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing. Practicing gratitude can become an integral part of the healing process, and there are many exercises that can help you. Some of the ones that I practice are highlighted below.

Strategies to Increase Gratitude

(1) Take inventory. If this post has piqued your curiosity (enough) to gauge whether, or how much, you practice gratitude, there are a number of measures that can help. One is the Gratitude Questionnaire – Six Item Form (GQ-6), which is a part of a spirituality and health study and gives you benchmarks (where you fall on a range compared to others). If nothing else, it focuses your attention on the extent that you practice gratitude.

Three gray lines, two with green checkmarks next to each, and a red "x" displayed next to the last one.

Another is the Gratitude Adjective Checklist (GAC), where you identify when you’ve been grateful, thankful, and appreciative, using a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). It can be done for the short- or long-term (one day or two weeks, for example). Finally, the Gratitude and Appreciation Scale (GRAT) – Short Form is a 16-item scale that measures gratitude as a trait and helps you understand if you’re grateful or a selfish prick (LOL, maybe that was a bit harsh, no?!?!).

(2) Daily lists. Once you figure out where you fall on the gratitude/ingratitude continuum, you can increase your practice by creating lists – either mentally or by writing them down. For me, this is different from keeping a journal. Keeping a daily log is something I do mentally, and it works like a charm when I’m in a funk. This might be challenging at first, but the more you do it, the more routine it becomes. When I catch myself thinking about the “what-ifs” and all that can go wrong in my life, I bring myself back to reality and think about what I’m grateful for. I list about 4-5 things, and just like that, my mood turns from negative to positive. Try it! It really works but you have to keep at it until it becomes an automatic response (like breathing).

A open blank notebook with a pencil sitting on one side.

(3). Journaling. The “doing” of journaling is something that can be very effective for cultivating gratitude. I’m a big fan of pretty notebooks, so any excuse to purchase a new one is great! If you’re interested in keeping a gratitude journal, I recommend you have one that’s solely for this purpose (not one that you use for work or school). I also think that journaling every day can be too much for some (myself included!). But maybe doing it every day may be just what you need, so test it out and see what works. You can start by writing the date, then the things that you’re grateful for (1. I’m grateful for… 2. I’m grateful for…). Start off with about 4-5 things, but don’t pressure yourself to come up with a certain number. There’s nothing too small to be grateful for (“I’m grateful for waking up this morning…”), so don’t make the exercise cumbersome.

I find that journaling at the end of the day or right before I go to bed works best for me because it gives me a chance to reflect on the day (or the last few days) and identify what I’m grateful for. Also, if you prefer a digital journal, check out your phone’s App Store and download one that you’re comfortable using.

To be clear, I create my gratitude list mentally – as often as a few times a day with things that are generally constants in my life (health, family, significant other, opportunities); whereas my journaling tends to focus on experiences I’ve had recently (but by no means is it restricted to this!). Try both and see what works for you!

An open notebook with cut-outs of inspirational words and quotes displayed across both pages.

(4). Visual board. If daily lists and journaling aren’t enough or don’t work, try a visual board. (I know people create vision boards using Law of Attraction principles, but this can also be a great way to induce the practice of gratitude.) You can do this by pasting images and quotes on a poster board that reminds you of the things, people, and experiences that you’re grateful for. Or you can create a digital version by using Powerpoint or some other software and set it as wallpaper on your laptop. People use Pinterest to pin things to their boards, but the point of a visual board is to have it displayed somewhere that you can see frequently (like on your bedroom wall, office, etc.).

(5). Mental subtraction. This exercise of practicing gratitude includes thinking about a positive occurrence (job offer, marriage, buying a house, etc.), and writing about what life would be like if it didn’t happen. Apparently, doing this helps you recognize what you’re grateful to have, and improves your mood. The appreciation for something we already have can be loosely defined in terms of the endowment effect, a behavioral economics concept that makes us value what we own. And along those lines, this can be explained by loss aversion, or the idea that losing something we have is worse than gaining something we don’t have (don’t you feel smarter now?!?!).

A pastel green "Thank You" note resting on top of a brown envelope.

(6). Gratitude notes/letters. The mere act of saying thank you to someone increases your practice of gratitude. You can do this by writing a thank-you note or letter to someone in appreciation for something they’ve done (or maybe just for who they are!). I find that a handwritten thank-you note goes a long way…especially in a digital world where emails and texts have become the preferred means of communication. Every time I send a handwritten thank-you note or letter to someone, I almost always get a phone call (or email) thanking me for being so thoughtful, which warms my heart.

So how do you exercise gratitude? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, so drop a line in the comments section.

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

Ten Rules for Being Human

The Ten Rules provide a helpful roadmap – not a magical formula that you can use to make all of your problems go away. Each rule has its own set of lessons that you resolve in order to lead a more fulfilled life. How you deal with these lessons will differ in kind and magnitude. The rules are about coming to realize – and accept – that life is a compilation of positive and negative experiences, and that all of the answers you seek lie within.

Do you know what the rules are for being human? Not that there’s universally-agreed upon tenets for being a well-rounded, wise soul. God knows there are lots of “How-To” books and articles on happiness, gratitude, wealth, etc. (way too many to list here). The Ten Rules are from Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott’s book If Life Is A Game, These Are the Rules, then they appeared in the Way of the Peaceful Warrior and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

In Dr. Carter-Scott’s book, she describes the Ten Rules as a “template for living a happy life” and encourages you to “learn the lessons, listen to your messages, align with your spiritual DNA, and fulfill your dreams.” Simple enough, right?!?! They actually are quite easy to grasp yet, often, challenging to remember and implement when you’re in a rut, lost, sad, restless, or seeking answers to life’s challenging questions.

Of all the “How-To” guides I’ve come across, this one resonates…deeply. The Ten Rules aren’t gimmicky quick fixes that miraculously lead to a peaceful, fulfilling life without challenges. And I didn’t go searching for them, they FOUND me: the first time was in September 2001 (while surfing the internet) and the most recent time was in August 2019 (surfing my laptop folders for something completely unrelated, mind you). These times are what I call the IN-BETWEEN phases of my life, which signified major course corrections; when I had nothing solid to guide me or reassure me that I was on the right path. But in trusting my gut and surrendering, I ended up where I needed to; granted with a few more battle wounds, but nonetheless wiser, happier, and more grateful.

I’ll write about the discovery and rediscovery of the Ten Rules another time, but this post is a cursory overview of the Ten Rules. As I embark on this new endeavor of launching Behaving Humanly, I can’t think of a better way to start the journey than to use the rules as a launching pad to blast off into the blogosphere. (Here we go!)

About the Rules…

While the glass is always half-full from my perspective, again, this template is not a magical formula that you can use to make all of your problems go away. So you should view it as a helpful roadmap, not a “have-to” or “must-do” checklist of things you check off a bucket list.

An old book with a brown leather cover and the words, "The Rules of Life" printed in all gold, capital letters.

Each rule has its own set of lessons that you resolve in order to “journey successfully through life.” How you deal with these lessons will differ in kind and magnitude. It’s about coming to realize – and accept – that life is a compilation of positive and negative experiences. The negative ones we’d all like to avoid, but sticking your head in the sand won’t get you far. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) Maturity and wisdom help you work through your challenges and learn your lessons. As Buddha said, “Life is suffering” but only because of its ever-changing nature and our inability to practice non-attachment.

Diving into the details of each lesson would make this post longer than it already is (plus you’d probably never come back to this site, which would make me very sad). So for now, I’ve summarized them in this glossary, and in future posts, I’ll dive more deeply into the specific lessons for each rule in order to help you realize that you’re not alone, you’re not destined to live a life of misery, and that you too can become wiser and stronger if you’re willing to put in the work.  

Without further treks into rabbit holes, and distractions (oh look! Squirrel!) here are the Ten Rules. Oh yeah, one last thing, the quoted sections from this point forward (and the ones above) are from Dr. Carter-Scott’s book.

Rule One: You Will Receive A Body

Silhouette of a human body standing upright with arms extended.

This rule is all about your physical experience as a spiritual being. Your body serves as a “buffer between you and the outside world…” and is non-transferable, it comes with a no-exchange policy, so love it or hate it, you should take care of it. And if you don’t love it (not very many people do), then try to change it and do it from a place of love and self-acceptance, not loathing and self-hatred – regardless of whether it’s exercise or plastic surgery. Otherwise, it won’t matter if you go under the knife multiple times and transform yourself into a supermodel because, ultimately, the physical changes won’t lead you to accept yourself in all your wondrous glory. You’ll project an image of beauty and assuredness on the outside, but on the inside, you’ll be a hot mess (and no one likes a hot mess!). The lessons include acceptance, respect, self-esteem, and pleasure.

Rule Two: You Will Be Presented With Lessons

A black-and-white sketch of a stack of books, with the one on the top sitting upright, open; showing blank pages.

The focus of this rule is on discovering your purpose and making sense of life. And as you contemplate these deep thoughts, you’ll be presented with lessons throughout this “informal” school of life (yes, learning is a life-long process). “You may encounter challenging lessons that others don’t have to face, while others spend years struggling with challenges that you don’t need to deal with.” So it’s probably best not to compare your journey to another’s because that’ll slow your learning and stunt your growth, and you’ll end up getting stuck on the “whys” because there are some things that will seem random and unfair. Also, it’s your prerogative whether you opt to learn your lessons (yes, you have choice in the matter), but it’s important to at least try because that’s how you grow and gain wisdom (am I right?!?!?). The process may not be easy, but the rewards will be worth the challenges. (I’m speaking from experience here.) The lessons here are more like tools to help you on your path, and include openness, choice, fairness, and grace.

Rule Three: There Are No Mistakes, Only Lessons

A black chalkboard with the words, "Never a failure, always a lesson" in white, cursive writing.

Aside from mistakes being nothing more than lessons, this rule is about perception: how you view your mistakes (often as MASSIVE FAILURES) relative to how you view someone else’s (often as itty-bitty blunders). When plans go awry, you’re likely to get angry and think it’s all your fault or someone else’s, or that God (or the universe) has a twisted sense of humor. You might assume that you’re done, kaput, and that success will ALWAYS elude you. But once you take some deep breaths, cry a good cry, and change your perception, you’ll understand that you’re not a loser (now go wash off that “L” you painted on your forehead). “Human growth is a process of experimentation, trial, and error, ultimately leading to wisdom.” Nothing is guaranteed (well, some things are, like death and taxes). If you feel wronged by someone, it’s best to examine your reactions to them (and not buy a Voodoo doll to stick with pins). If you take a shortcut and don’t really put in 100%, it’s time to look inward and examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (why do I always do that?!?!). Viewing your mistakes as lessons also empowers you to see that you’re not a victim of circumstance. The lessons here are compassion, forgiveness, ethics, and humor.

Rule Four: A Lesson Is Repeated Until Learned

Multi-color, arrow-headed lines  signifying movement in many directions.

This rule is about how the same lessons appear in various forms until you learn them. Otherwise, you’ll be like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, and “draw to you teachers to teach you that lesson until you get it right.” If you keep dating the same type of person or face the same issues with bosses or coworkers, it’s time to pay attention (get your shit together already!). The first step is recognizing the patterns and “shifting your perspective” from one of victimhood (why does this always happen to me?!?!) to empowerment (what is the lesson here???). Avoidance is the easy path, but your issues will pop back up like that Bozo the Clown bop bag. “To face the challenges means you need to accept the fact that something within you keeps drawing you to the same kind of person or issue…” This can be a painful truth to accept, but seeking to make a positive change will help you become a (more) mature version of yourself. The lessons include awareness, willingness, causality, and patience.

Rule Five: Learning Does Not End

A green street sign attached to a pole, depicting three white arrows pointing in different directions, with the word, "Learning" printed four times.

Unless you’ve checked out and decided to live your life as an automaton, there’ll always be lessons to learn, because yes, say it with me, learning is a lifelong process. (I have a Ph.D. but my learning continues, and unlike my “A” average in school, I’m probably a “B-“ at best in the school of life.) Again, there’s no instruction manual other than the one you develop along the way, with pain and heartache as the best teachers that eventually lead to humility and wisdom (unless you’re a glutton for punishment or have no conscience).

True story: When I was a kid, I thought that once people reached adulthood (let’s say 20 onward), they’d have life figured out and always do the right thing. They’d be mature, kind, and caring adults who wouldn’t hurt others. In other words, they would master their lessons and live an awesome life. Sadly, my theory was – and continues to be – proven wrong. As an adult myself, I realize that I’m just as guilty. But all hope is not lost because without lessons that help us grow into better versions of ourselves, life wouldn’t be as interesting (am I right?!?!). Even those who we assume have mastered this thing called life (Mother Teresa, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama) are/were challenged with lessons. “Your journey on Earth is constantly unfolding,” and the challenge is to “embrace your role as a perpetual student of life.” The lessons include surrender, commitment, humility, and flexibility.

Rule Six: “There” Is No Better Than “Here”

Illustration of the the front page of a newspaper with "Top News" as a header and "The Future Is Now" as a cover story.

This rule speaks to being present, in the here and now, and not trapping yourself into believing that you’ll be happy IF ONLY you were _________ (fill-in-the-blank). Setting conditions on your happiness will only disappoint, leaving you to strive for another “there.” Please don’t get it twisted, you should set goals for yourself, but that’s totally different from thinking that the grass is greener “there” or that life will be a bed of roses once you get that awesome job, buy that cool sports car, or lose some weight. Often, “there” becomes a moving target or goal post. So unless you appreciate “here,” your happiness with “there” – once you arrive – will be fleeting because you’ll look for the next “there.” Living in the present is the goal of this rule. (This is one of my most challenging lessons, but I’m getting better at appreciating “here” by exercising gratitude.) The lessons are gratitude, unattachment, abundance, and peace.

Rule Seven: Others Are Only Mirrors of You

Illustration of an animated, white square (with eyes and a mouth) looking at itself in a yellow-framed mirror and smiling.

This rule is about being drawn to those who are like us and put off by those who are nothing like us. And “your reactions to others say more about you than they do about others.” The point is that you have more to learn from those you dislike than those you like (hard one to swallow, I know). As much as you might convince yourself that you’re being OBJECTIVE, you’re not (objectivity in human relations, in my opinion, is a farce). We filter our views of the world – people, places, things – based on our lived experiences. So if you were raised by an overbearing mom that nitpicked at you – your looks, choices of friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. – chances are you’re just as opinionated and make others relive your trauma. Likewise, you won’t be a fan of someone you come into contact with later in life who’s just as opinionated.

The people you dislike are your teachers, and present opportunities to “heal past incidents of anger, hurt, or irritation.” Not ones to avoid and criticize in the spirit of self-righteous indignation. So using these opportunities to “shift your perspective” from critical judgments of others (outward) to examining yourself (inward), is the main focus of this rule. You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have a lot to learn from the ones you can’t stand. The lessons here are tolerance, clarity, healing, and support.

Rule Eight: What You Make of Your Life Is Up To You

An illustration of an open book with silhouettes of people - young and old - across the blank pages. Behind them are shadows of trees and birds flying in the sky on the right.

Among other things, you may not have much say in where and when you’re born, who your parents are, how rich or poor they are, how many siblings you have, or whether or not you’re healthy. But you DO have a say in determining the course of your life. Your belief in your abilities WILL dictate your success (whatever SUCCESS means to you.) “When you fully recognize your challenges, your gifts, and your individual reality, and you accept the life path they represent, the world provides whatever you need to succeed.” So yeah, your limitations are self-imposed. Your reality is of your own making, and the more the New Age philosophies and the laws of physics and science are shown to align (for example, we’re all energy and connected, etc.), you come to realize that this not about rainbow-farting unicorns. The lessons here are responsibility, release, courage, power, and adventure.

Rule Nine: All Your Answers Lie Inside of You

Multi-color profile silhouette of a male with a yellow compass in the middle of his head. A multi-color cloud emitting from the top of the head, with yellow overtones.

Lucky are those who know at a very young age what they want to be when they grow up. Like the kid who wants to be a doctor, or the one obsessed with all-things dinosaurs (paleontologist, maybe?). As for you and me, maybe it didn’t – or hasn’t – come easy. Maybe you became a lawyer, engineer, or doctor because that’s what your parents wanted (because secretly you wanted to weave baskets and live on the beach). Or you came to realize that you DID want to be a doctor and pursued your love of medicine to help others (awesome!). Maybe you didn’t opt for college and/or decided you weren’t smart enough to follow your dreams. Unfortunately, we cross paths with assholes who tell us that we’re not good enough to do something (my high school guidance counselor told me I wasn’t “college material.”) But there are also those who inspire us to pursue what we instinctively know we’d be great at (like my Ph.D. Advisor who told me I had a “gift for writing”).

Regardless, what others tell us about ourselves takes on more meaning, especially if you’re unsure of yourself. But as this rule makes clear, “deep inside, you already know all you need to know” and that “inner wisdom transmits messages about our life path.” Sometimes, you’re very attuned to what your gut tells you. The messages may come to you as “a-ha!” moments, a sign on the side of a bus, a fortune cookie (don’t laugh). But you generally dismiss them as too far-fetched, not worth the pursuit because, you know, you have freakin’ bills to pay (don’t we all?!?!?). This is where trusting yourself becomes crucial, and trusting that, as Joseph Campbell says, “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls” (deep, huh?). The lessons for this rule include listening, trust, and inspiration.

Rule Ten: You Will Forget All of This At Birth

Illustrated left human hand with only the index finger extended, with a red ribbon tied in a bow.

Unless you dedicate your life to monkhood or any other enlightenment-oriented path, your journey through life – upbringing, schooling, experiences, etc. – will make it hard to internalize these rules and work through your challenges as a natural, normal part of living. “Each lesson is like another stone along your life path, and as you travel and learn your lessons, some may look and feel familiar.” When you have clarity (“a-ha!” moments, the sea parts…), it signifies that you’re “remembering what you originally knew.” In those moments of clarity, of being put in touch with what you already know (but forgot you knew), a peaceful feeling washes over you. In therapy, they call these breakthroughs, and afterward, you’re often physically exhausted and need more rest/sleep than usual. “Remembering and forgetting are the dance of consciousness.” The peaceful feelings don’t have to be fleeting, and as you work through your challenges and learn your lessons, the balance can shift in favor of remembering; this is the essence of Rule Ten, and the lessons include faith, wisdom, and limitlessness.

Before We Part…

If the “most direct path to your wisdom is paved with your life’s lessons,” then I have some serious wisdom to share (grab the popcorn and get comfortable). Not because I’ve figured it all out, but because I’ve learned many lessons the hard way; by repeatedly making mistakes, ignoring my intuition, not trusting myself, and seeking answers from outside (I still do some of this.).

My bicultural upbringing – in a lot of ways – has forced me to expand my perspective especially when my Afghan-ness clashes with my American-ness, or vice versa. The fact that I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology has helped a lot. (Hell, I always say that it was the most expensive and longest therapy I’ve had.) It equipped me with tools to learn my lessons, and in turn, share them with my students when I taught sociology and psychology, undergraduate classes. It’s also come in handy in the workplace, and during the time I spent in the war zone in Afghanistan as a researcher (check out my War Log, if interested).

As a fallible human being that’s been lucky enough to have had some awesome opportunities and experiences, I want to use my background, education, and lessons learned to help you. Sharing my lessons learned – as well as the ones I struggle with – is THE core motivation for why I created Behaving Humanly. My hope is that you join me on this adventure and discover the tools to move beyond your comfort zone, trust yourself, learn your lessons, and pursue YOUR dreams with laser-sharp focus.

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

Glossary of Lessons: Ten Rules for Being Human

I created this handy glossary in case you get curious about the lessons identified in my Ten Rules post. These definitions/explanations are my own and will be explored in future posts (so don’t get too hung up on the details!).

I created this handy glossary in case you get curious about the lessons identified in my Ten Rules post. These definitions/explanations are my own and will be explored in future posts (so don’t get too hung up on the details!).

Abundance is just as much about your mindset as it is about measuring it in terms of what you possess or own. You may overlook all you have, constantly wanting more, thinking that if you had more you’d be happier. This is actually a scarcity mindset, where you believe/feel you don’t have enough of something (money). But an abundant mindset is about appreciating what you already have and knowing that you have access to all that you need. 

Acceptance is when you believe that something just is and you’re unable or not willing to change it. Acceptance of someone else’s choices is one example, acceptance of yourself (your body, what you look like, etc.) is another. If acceptance is not the aim, then seek to make changes from a place of love rather than inadequacy or lack.

Adventure or to be adventurous is to be open to new experiences; to continually push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things, visit new places, and/or meet new people. Some people are innately adventurous, while others learn to become adventurous by being open to new experiences, even though they may be reluctant at first to try new things.

Antique map of the world with a compass on the right hand side of the picture.

Awareness means being attuned to the “hows/whys” of your behavior and your surroundings. It’s an understanding of how you view yourself in relation to others, and how others view you. Awareness is about being conscious of your behavior, and attempting to fix negative ones that lead to unhealthy patterns.

Causality is the ability to recognize the cause-effect relationships in life; that your choices affect the course of your life and those around you. It’s about knowing that you’re a responsible actor, and not a victim of circumstances.

Choice is when you make decisions about what you want, what you think/feel, and what you do. It’s about selecting from many options. Sometimes choices are made on our behalf or we believe that they’re limited given our views and/or life circumstances. But we always have choice, at least in how we view a situation if not in preventing it.

Clarity is gained when you’re able to identify the “hows/whys” of your behavior. Those “a-ha!” moments can occur during times of reflection and/or when you’re seeking understanding through interactions with others.

Commitment means that you’ve made the decision to do something or support another, no matter what happens. It’s about sticking it out even when things get uncomfortable, as long as you’re not in danger and haven’t put anyone else in danger.

Compassion is about opening your heart to others and having sympathy for them, or their situation, and trying to alleviate their suffering.

Courage means to be brave enough to go after what you want; to take the initial steps toward a goal; stand up for the underdog, and/or voice an unpopular opinion. Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not fearful, it’s about taking actions despite your fears.

Ethics is about having a moral code you live by. It’s about knowing right from wrong, and being consistent in its application. An ethical code isn’t universal and can vary across societies, cultures, and groups.

Fairness is an expectation of equity. It’s the idea that equality exists and that justice will prevail. When you judge something as unfair, it can leave you angry and bitter, potentially changing your perspective on life.

Faith is having confidence in something or someone without tangible proof. Sometimes, your faith is restored after you see proof. Other times, you possess unshakeable faith without needing proof. Faith in the existence of a higher being (God) is one example.

Flexibility is about being open to change; to be adaptable and not have a fixed mentality. Being flexible means that you’re open to changing your viewpoint based on new information, or being open to a change in plans when things don’t go exactly as you want or anticipate.

Forgiveness means letting go of past hurts and grudges. It’s about moving forward without holding someone responsible for your pain and suffering. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes is just as important as forgiving another person. Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook for hurting you, it’s about not carrying the weight of that anger and pain, and moving past the mentality of victimhood.

Grace, in the spiritual sense, is the faith that we’re guided by an internal compass; that we’re protected by the Almighty. It shows that you’re attuned to the ebb and flow of life and that you understand that life has a deeper meaning than what we experience in the physical sense.

Gratitude is about appreciating your life, what you have, the people in it, and all that’s available to you. Often, you find yourself wanting more without being grateful for what you already have. You might engage in “if-then” thinking: If I had more money, then I’d be happy. But it’s in acknowledging and giving thanks for what you have now that increases your potential for having more.

"Thank you" spelled out in multi-color pastel blocks, situated on a wooden surface.

Healing, in the mental/emotional sense, is achieving well-being or feeling whole. This can be accomplished through understanding, clarity, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. It can occur during therapy sessions and/or be initiated by your willingness to change your perspective and/or circumstances so that you’re no longer plagued by past hurts. Sometimes healing seems unachievable, and in these instances, it’s about the process and your willingness to heal that helps you become whole.

Humility means having a strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, in addition to acknowledging your limitations. Someone who doesn’t possess humility can often be taught painful life lessons that can help him/her develop a healthier sense of who they are in relation to others.

Humor is not only about being funny, but it’s also about possessing levity about life’s circumstances and not taking things too seriously. A good sense of humor can help you cope more effectively with negative experiences, and with what life throws your way.

Inspiration can be drawn from many sources, and include pursuing a goal that excites you, no matter how many people tell you that it won’t work. Inspiration can help you persevere when you face challenges. You can be inspired by other people, a challenging experience, or an idea you’re passionate about.

Limitlessness is about knowing that your only limits are the ones that you impose upon yourself. To be limitless is to know that there are no boundaries and that you can achieve more than you believe. Socialization does a great job of hampering your perception of limitlessness and can lead to a myopic view of what you’re capable of being and becoming.

Listening is not merely about hearing what someone is saying, it’s about focusing actively on what is being said – verbally and nonverbally. Most of the time, you’re thinking about how to respond when someone is speaking to you, so you tend to miss a lot of what’s being communicated. When you engage in active listening, you notice that you’ve actually expended some energy doing something.

Sculpture of two males with their ears against a brick wall, actively listening.

Openness is the ability to withhold judgment and be receptive to people and experiences that you normally wouldn’t seek out. It’s about not having a fixed attitude toward someone or something, and maintaining an objective attitude that enables you to change your views if warranted.

Patience is about toleration, whether with yourself when you’re trying to improve your life (exercise), waiting to hear about a decision (job offer), or dealing with someone who challenges you (boss, spouse, neighbor). Patience includes a willingness to suspend judgments about yourself and others, a willingness to improve, and compassion for yourself and others.

Peace is a state of mind achieved by being present, which then provides the calm and tranquility of focusing on the here and now. When you reflect on the past, you tend to criticize yourself and others, which brings up negative feelings. When you focus on the future, you increase your anxiety by thinking about worst-case scenarios that could lead to your ruin. But when you focus on the present – what’s right in front of you – you’re able to push out anxiety and worry.

Pleasure is gaining or deriving good feelings from something or someone via sensory experiences (smelling fresh roses, seeing a beautiful sunset, being caressed/hugged, eating a delicious meal, etc.). It’s about enjoying yourself and helping others do the same.

Power is more than having physical strength, it’s about the mental/emotional toughness that’s borne of painful experiences, which should be viewed as lessons to build your inner resolve and grit. Sometimes, you don’t understand how powerful you are until you face adversity or have to help another through a difficult situation.

Release is simply about letting go. It’s not about sticking your head in the sand and shirking responsibility; it’s about making the conscious decision to release a past hurt or walk away from a bad relationship. When you find it difficult to forgive someone, you’re holding on to the pain. When you’re forced to let go of something or someone, you’re not releasing, you’re resisting. When you choose to release, you’re making a conscious decision to do so.

Black-and-white silhouette of two female hands releasing a dove.

Respect is about having regard for your worth, someone else’s, and/or something. It may not always translate as liking someone or something, it’s more to do with acknowledging their value. You can have respect for others, but lack respect for yourself, your needs and wants. Sometimes you may not even recognize that you lack respect for yourself.

Responsibility means acknowledging your role in a situation or being held accountable for your behavior. Sometimes, people blame others for their situation(s) and fail to recognize their role, perpetuating a mentality of victimhood. Sometimes, people take all the responsibility for a situation involving other people, assuming that everything is their fault. To take responsibility doesn’t mean to absolve others of their part, it’s about viewing your circumstance from an objective perspective and taking ownership of what you need to change or do differently (apologize, forgive, and move forward).

Self-esteem is about feeling worthy and being confident in who you are and what you’re capable of achieving. Self-esteem can be based on an internal sense of well-being and capacity, or derived from external sources. Some people base their self-esteem on what others think of them, while others possess high self-esteem regardless of what others think of them.

Support is about helping others, especially during challenging times. It’s about being a source of strength for those you love. In supporting others, you’re also helping yourself. When you think of the people who support you, it should fill you with love and gratitude. In social support networks, there is an unspoken rule of reciprocity, where people are expected to give and get help.

Surrender means to let go of control, knowing that when you put forth the effort to do something, you don’t have to worry about the “hows/whys” of your decision(s) and/or the outcome(s). Often, it’s the opposite of resistance such as resisting to change your views of others and circumstances.

A kitten lying down with its paws in the air.

Tolerance is about exercising patience with yourself and others. Sometimes it means accepting people and things as they are. For example, you will come across people who hold different political views and disagree with them on every issue. But tolerating their views for the sake of co-existence should be the aim. This doesn’t mean you have to accept their stance or support it. It means that you agree to disagree, and choose to tolerate them without demonizing them.

Trust is mutual confidence in the integrity of another; that what she or he says is correct. Trust is also having confidence in your ability to judge right from wrong and make decisions in your best interest. Sometimes, we discount our thoughts/feelings about someone or something, especially if we can’t articulate a rational justification for why we think/feel a certain way. This can often lead us astray.

Unattachment is similar to surrendering. Often you try to control the outcome of a situation by trying to influence the process or the people involved. You may end up worrying about what will happen, and focus on how disappointed you’ll be if the outcome you’re expecting doesn’t manifest. If you keep in mind that no matter the outcome, you’ll be okay, it helps you exercise unattachment.

Willingness is the ability to want to change; to be open to seeing things from a different perspective; and/or seeking new experiences. Your willingness to change is a necessary step in doing things differently and growing as an individual. It can make the difference between living a more fulfilled life, or closing yourself off to new people and experiences and remaining stagnant.

Wisdom is gained through life’s challenges. It’s not a subject you learn in school, it’s something that you gain as a result of lessons presented throughout your life, often painful ones. When you break dysfunctional patterns and stop making the same mistakes, you’ve attained some wisdom. It’s also not the same as intelligence because wisdom encompasses mental, spiritual, and emotional progression and maturity.

Multi-color silhouette of a profile with a big, red heart at the top.