Tag Archives: Psychology

What We Will Do To Belong

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Status, Salvation, and Swastikas: Indoctrination is a group thing

I finally found the magazine Annette gave me last month. Annette is one of seven Clemson “sisters” I met through a professional women’s organization in 1989. All eight of us were plenty busy running businesses, careers and families, but we made the time to cultivate deep connections. We dug beyond work-life balance, pay equity, and sexual harassment into repressed desires, regrets, and who God might be. Thirty years deep.

The best group experience I’ve ever had is with these women. In spite of the dumb shit each of us occasionally does. The Sisters are slow to criticize and quick to forgive. I didn’t do anything to deserve inclusion. I just belong.

My mind was on the rarity of groups like ours as I flipped past the perfumed ads, fashion (who buys $395 earrings?), and finally a section toward the back featuring major belief changes, as in I was a white supremacist skinhead and now lead a group called Life After Hate and The Latter Day Saints were everything to me until my son came out.

Why We Leave Groups

I know quite a bit about social identity, our sense of who we are based on group membership. But I’m always fascinated to learn how people leave an identity (even a socially-judged bad one). Especially when that identity provides a strong source of belonging.

For many, leaving a group is triggered by an event, like a child’s coming out, that compels the parent to re-examine religious beliefs. For others, it’s a longer road marked with bouts of cognitive dissonance. Only after enough wear and tear against their core values do they leave the group. And not always all at once; sometimes it’s a slow tapering off.

Groups are Groups

Comparing membership in a terrorist organization and membership in a church or any social identity group (e.g., work, gender, ethnicity) may sound crazy or morally wrong, but basically, groups are groups. And they are powerful. So much so, that one’s group identity can become more important than one’s identity as an individual.

Much of a group’s power over the individual stems from indoctrination. Not all groups indoctrinate to the same extent. Indoctrination is simply teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs without questioning them.

If you’ve attended religious services or school, worked in an organization, served in the military, or a learned a profession or trade, you have been indoctrinated.

The very fact of being born into a culture, any culture, is an experience of indoctrination.

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But, isn’t membership in a hate group something significantly different? The group output may be entirely different, but the process of attachment and resulting actions and commitment (strength of identity) to the group is not.

  • Merely classifying people into groups makes us think of ourselves as group members. This simple categorization leads to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. Recall Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. (We don’t have to have hateful intention, but we do tend toward comparative superiority.)
  • We then act in ways we believe members of our group should behave. For example, if I define myself as a social justice advocate, I get trained in restorative practices, volunteer to conduct community circles, and donate to political and social organizations that seek equity. I become emotionally invested in my group membership. My self-esteem is even affected by the status my group, which I (and my group members) work to elevate.

Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. — Philip G. Zimbardo

  • We continue to compare our group with other groups in both prestige and social standing. We must perceive our in-group as having a higher social status (we are in some way better) than an out-group to maintain high self-esteem.

How Does Indoctrination Work?

Skinhead Stories

Mix youthful angst with a history of being bullied; add parental abandonment, apathy, and lack of structure. This is a familiar backstory shared by former extremists. When adopting a clique whose emblems are swastikas and Confederate flags, for example, you don’t have to know what they mean or believe in them:

I just knew that I could be violent and angry around them, and they never questioned what was wrong with me. I thought, ‘this must be where I fit.’ Before long, I was being indoctrinated. — Angela King

For Ms. King, as I suspect is the case for other former members, the skinheads served an important purpose: she found a place where she got to blame her parents and most of society, she got to aggressively act out her pain and was vindicated, even celebrated for doing so.

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And despite her aversion to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal building resulting in 168 deaths (including children), she continued membership in the group, stealing and assaulting until she was arrested and sent to prison. While there, she met and fell in love with a black woman. The wear and tear of her cognitive dissonance, coupled with a life-changing event behind bars created the opportunity for radical change and transformation.

Enter the Enemy

Sometimes the catalytic event is an enemy in the next cell. And sometimes it’s an unexpected enemy, a loathed out-group member who comes to you, asking to listen and learn. Daryl Davis has befriended KKK members for decades and now has 200-plus relinquished white robes in his closet. Evidence of (voluntarily) hanging up individual KKK identities built on fear and hate. How does he do it?

[w]hen two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.- Daryl Davis


Less Radical Conversions

Leaving in-groups isn’t all that rare. Especially when you consider the breadth of social identity groups. I tend to think of conversions from one identity to another as road-to-Damascus phenomena (Saul became Paul, a follower of Christ, after being struck by a blinding heavenly light).

But less dramatic conversions — social, political, religious — happen over time to most of us; it’s part of human development. The point is not to change for change’s sake, but to not blithely belong to an identity that doesn’t fit.

People who question and explore their identities (group or individual) inspire me. Putting out feelers to assess group “fit” according to who we think we are, (especially in our teens and early adulthood) is nothing new. But identity quests are increasingly common among Gen Z. If the fluidity of gender and exploration of ethnicity are an indication of the future, perhaps more empathy, and less stereotyping and discrimination will result.

Groups Are Not The Problem

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Groups can do damage but they are necessary for healthy human development. In fact, individuality at its best is the ability to be a unique member of a group. This paradox is why we can’t throw the group identity bathwater out with the baby (or vice versa). And this is very hard.

As Irami Osei-Frimpong points out, liberals can confuse individuality with indeterminacy:

So, they’ll tell you that you can reclaim your individuality by not being a member of anything. But really, when you aren’t a member of anything, you are nothing. You are indeterminate. You are a floating nothing.

A better solution is to accept our evolutionary need to belong to groups with self-awareness and accountability:

  1. We are all indoctrinated into values, beliefs and ways of doing things (culture) from birth. We tend not to question culture because … why would we? It’s like asking fish why they swim in water.
    Keep alert. Talk to others you trust when you feel any friction (wear and tear) against your values.
  2. Our in-groups significantly determine our thoughts and actions. We can’t help but compare ourselves to those in the out-group (everyone else) as different, lacking, and even inferior.
    Take an short audit of your groups. Do they depend on an “enemy”? Do they hold themselves accountable?
  3. We get competitive and sometimes violent to maintain our self-esteem, which is significantly influenced by group belonging.
    Do you find that you’re anxious, fearful that you’re not good enough according to group standards? Does the group exist to harm other people in any way?
  4. We can’t escape our need to belong. Groups are not the problem; the problem is unexamined beliefs with no room to question, disagree, and discuss them.
    Are people within your group able to question or challenge what the leader says?

There’s a reason groupthink is still taught in the social sciences.

Sometimes I miss teaching that content. It’s been one year since leaving a 25-year work identity as a professor. Now my identity has shifted to working with others interested in both individuality and a collective goal of turning institutions of oppression into institutions of freedom. A group that keeps its members accountable.

I have my Clemson Sisters to thank for that.

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The Cancer of Privileged Expectations

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How to kill delusions of getting our way while keeping hope alive

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” — Margaret Mitchell

Everyone has their blind spots. Blame nature, nurture, hard-to-break habits. One of my weaknesses is that I conflate hope and expectation.

Just because I really want something and work hard to make it happen doesn’t mean it will. I put too much stock into may and might, like an overly excited kid whose parent says “maybe someday” to her pleas for a puppy.

I don’t realize why I feel depressed until I admit that what I’d hoped for was what I was set on happening. This is embarrassing on a lot of levels.

First, I’m white, not poor, and heterosexual. Being female and politically blue in a red state has its occasional issues but I am certainly among the privileged. Privileged folks have more success in getting what we want.

Second, I’m educated (also tied to privilege), and I should know better. If nothing else, basic probability theory doesn’t change by blowing on dice. My wanting and wishing won’t change snake eyes (pair of ones) into ballerina (two twos).

Third, add to the above certain traits like idealistic, moderately neurotic, an internal locus of control with Type A tendencies and viola!

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Is It Just Me? Or Could Our Culture Play a Part?

Decades before The Secret, a 2006 Oprah-lauded book based on the law of attraction, a lot of best-sellers claimed that your thoughts can directly change your life.

The basic formula of expectations = success has been in circulation long before self-help was a genre.

For starters, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was published in 1937 (it followed Hill’s The Law of Success in 1928). Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, also remains a best-seller.

And before these publications, Calvinism, bootstrapping and rugged individualism played a huge role in America’s lone-wolf hero mythology. Walt Disney’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is like saying, “If you want it, believe that you can do it, and you will.” (All of those contingencies depend on you and nothing or no one else.)

We’re culturally set up to think this way. And that’s not going to change, not today anyway. So, what’s the harm in believing? Aren’t positive people, even when they’re a bit delusional, nicer to be around? I’d much rather spend an hour with Ms. Confident and Mr. I’ve Got a Good Feeling than with a real-life Eeyore.

A Little Stoicism Shines a Spotlight

A good read on the lackluster benefits of positive thinking (and mega-motivational conferences that peddle it) is Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.

Burkeman says it’s not the work toward hoped-for outcomes that gets us into trouble. It’s our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful that messes us up. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.” This stoic path requires that we don’t ignore (or dismiss) that we in fact may not get what we want. And that’s guaranteed by our very mortality.

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A Place for Negative and Positive Space in the Same Brain

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

While attitudes influence positive (and negative) outcomes, our thoughts and moods don’t directly lead to those outcomes. Instead, our attitudes and thoughts affect our willingness — the fuel — to keep going and to give our best.

If I’m in a good place psychologically, I tend to work eagerly and I’m more likely to pour more positivity into that work. Which increases the probability of success — but only in terms of what I can control.

Thinking positively does not, itself, cause successful outcomes.

So Do We Try to Get Rid of Expectations or Just Lower them?

Eliminating unrealistic expectations — the hoped for outcome we absolutely and sometimes desperately want—can feel like depriving us of hope’s best case scenario.

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The idea is not to dilute what you hope for, but to temper what you expect. Over time, self-imposed high expectations create unsustainable demands on us and others.

By using a simple STOIC reminder, we can temper inflated expectations.

S = Stay focused on balancing your ideal outcome with other realistic possibilities. Thinking about how great it would be if your hopes materialize is certainly okay. But don’t dwell there. Consider other possibilities, including more negative outcomes, including what if things don’t change?

T = Take time to put your life into perspective. What does your hoped for outcome matter in the long run? A practicing stoic would remind us that we’re all going to die someday, which is a way to help us be present right now.

O = Offer thanks. For everything.

I = Invite unexpected visitors:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. — Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

C = Create more grace for yourself and others. Our very lives are not within our control. We were born into and will leave these bodies — and not according to anyone’s expectations. Including our own.

Don’t Give Up Hope

Adjusting expectations to fit more realistic probabilities is not a “one and done” endeavor. Especially for those of us who confuse expectations with hope. The point is not to dash dreams. Hope is a good thing:

Hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

And if hope is indestructible, it helps to envision expectations as something fragile that we choose to carry on a long journey:

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack. — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Of course, we don’t have to carry any expectations at all. I’m not sure whether that might be true enlightenment or another unrealistic expectation.

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Is There a Problem If I Can’t Stay Put?

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After 25 moves and six states, it’s time to find out

My household moves are hardly Ripley’s worthy, but given the average American moves 11-12 times over their entire lifespan, should I be concerned? According to the Social Security Administration, I have 25 more years to move. Biologically. If the government is right (what are those odds?), I could easily triple the average American. Why do I care?

Friday, we returned home from seeing a new listing. My husband says, “Maybe we should look for a place where it’s always spring or summer.” I look up from my laptop — 17 open tabs, 10 of them houses. Surely he’s not trying to sneak Costa Rica or Belize back on our list of locations. (We decided last year: even paradise is too cold without family a few hours away.)

Then he adds, “I’ve noticed that you start looking toward the end of every winter.”

Swallow. Okay, fair. And fairly accurate. With one 14-month exception in Nebraska, I have sought progressively warmer climes. But I wasn’t convinced that escaping winter is the whole story. (Maybe it is. I am all for finding out.)

What is “Normal”?

Although recent stats are hard to find, the average American moves about 11 times over a lifetime. Average doesn’t define what’s “normal,” it’s just one big mean. Money, mobility, age, education, ethnicity, and the economy (among other things) influence frequency of household moves.

Mover by Choice

There’s no term, none I can find, for people like me who move every few years. For me it’s usually 2–3 years a stretch. But here’s a crucial point: unlike millions of Americans, I have almost always chosen to move.

Counting all my household moves as an adult, 90% of them were based on my decision to move. Urban, poor Americans also move — driven by poor housing conditions, unresponsive landlords and other subsidized housing issues. One study found that about 70 percent of many relocation “decisions” among the poor are not decisions at all, but rather reactions to outside forces.

Also, Not a Serial Mover

Besides choice, another distinction is that people who move more than average are not necessarily serial movers. Yep, it’s a thing.

New York Times is where I first saw the term serial movers: “Those who eagerly hop back on the open-house circuit even before the aroma of fresh paint and polyurethane begins to fade — that is, if they ever stopped looking in the first place.”

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Despite the obvious connotation of the word serial and my desire not to have a moving-related psychosis, I don’t believe I am a serial mover. For one thing, I don’t continue looking after the closing. I do like to paint, and unless ceiling height poses safety issues, I do my own interior painting (and lawn mowing).

Serial movers seem motivated by everything from a desire for exploration, to the perpetuation of habit born in childhood, to a hunger for drama and excitement, to a fondness for extreme housekeeping. And these days, such appetites are stoked by a smorgasbord of aggressively marketed new buildings engaging in a constant battle of one-upmanship.

Desire for exploration: Check. That’s it. No childhood habit, no desire for drama beyond that which my three (now grown) daughters have already gifted, and certainly, above all, zero fondness for extreme housekeeping. (What is extreme housekeeping? Isn’t housekeeping unpleasant enough?) As for the one-upmanship, I care to impress as much as I’m an extreme housekeeper.

So How Much More Crazier Am I ?

Between birth and before moving into a shared dorm room, I lived in two places (actually, three: an apartment until I was months old, but have no memory of it). So, I don’t fit the army brat profile. I’m not replaying my formative years.

Photo for reuse: Wikimedia Commons

My first choice was to go to college; I was assigned to live in the tallest dormitory in the world. Given freshmen and sophomores had to live in a dorm, I wanted to try every conceivable type of room: After the double with Mary, I sought a single — which I learned made me less happy — and then a triple with Mary and Chris.

My desire to move within constraints is probably not inconsequential. It tells me that regardless of where I have to be, I want to explore all the possibilities.

Openness to Change

I like change. I get antsy or bored with too much certainty. When I taught trait-based leadership I’d take the Big Five Personality assessment with my students and plot our scores so we could see ranges and means. I was usually the highest data point at 95% on openness to experience. When another student scored similarly, I was able to guess: they were the one that loved to color outside the lines, suggest new colors, redraw the lines.

I can’t find any research on propensity to move and personality traits, so I’m spit-balling an educated hunch. The main question remains: is there a point at which moving reflects more than one or two dimensions of a “normal” personality? When might moving become a compulsion or something worse?

Experts Say:

When it comes to a psychological profile of movers, clinical psychologist Nancy J. Crown says that cookie-cutter explanations don’t exist:

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It would always have to be understood within the context of the particular person and their unique history. So you really couldn’t say that moving a lot means the same thing for everyone.

(Whew.) Yet, as Crown warns against overpathologizing frequent moving behavior, she also says:

There are some people who — either because of a lack of sense of who they are, or some feeling of inadequacy — may want to redo themselves in one way or another again and again. Something new is like anything is possible — you can sort of imagine yourself to be the person that you’d like to be.

Do I feel inadequate? No. Do I really know who I am and what I want to be? No. I’ve wanted to be everything from a blue fairy princess to a union organizer, a social scientist to Joan Didion. This year it’s Didion.

And I’m totally on board with anything is possible.

Finally, Crown adds that excessive moving could signal a fear of commitment and a consequent fear of closing off opportunities. Or, like procrastination, it can be a way to avoid failure.

Aha. Am I on to something? A fear of commitment to an imperfect place that follows me wherever I go? Or a fear of missing out on a place that’s out there… waiting for me?

A place to write in a sunny, warm, simple but comfortable, secluded but accessible, inexpensive yet quality-built cottage where tiny goats, cats and dogs frolic with or without our grandchildren on a few acres. Something in between Thoreau’s rustic single-room at Walden Pond and the airy Spanish Colonial of the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. A place where I’ll never feel depressed or lacking, old or tired, worried or worn.

Or am I avoiding failure (or the chance of success)? Am I using my Zillow hour each day to inadvertently rob myself of writing time, to put off being as productive as possible in a perfectly imperfect house that is more than good enough for the next 25 years?

I’m momentarily calmed and then, just the thought of things being close to perfect reminds me of Ricky Bobby’s daddy Reese in Talladega Nights:

Yep, I guess things are just about perfect… it’s making me feel kind of itchy.

And without thinking, I open another tab.

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Digging My Way Out of Scarcity: A Writer’s Tunnel of Reads and Claps

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I started feeling competitive and it wasn’t helping.

Feeling that edge every now and then can be good motivational fuel. But the edge was becoming the whole cloth. The fibers didn’t feel right.

I knew too much about my own traits, motivations, and the science behind them. Twenty-plus years of reliable data that I’m highly agreeable, tend toward collaboration, and have little need for power. Collaboration is intentionally baked into the other work I do. I’m not unselfish. Choosing to work in spaces of shared ideas, recognition and rewards yields the most meaning for me.

So to confess my competitive jealousy here is both a relief and a self-reprimand. To admit imagined rivalries between myself and other Medium writers feels immature. Even ridiculous.

I’ve been a writer here since January. My husband, an avid reader of all things non-fiction, occasionally sends me links on writing by Medium writers. A recent piece by Shaunta Grimes included staggeringly high stats and payouts over three months. Even seeing her first month’s earnings of over $100 evoked a green monster within me. I felt anxious, almost panicky.

Points of comparison poked into me like those plastic T fasteners that hide in the label of your shirt after you’ve cut away the tags. I chafed as I read to find something I was either doing right (confirmation bias) or to reveal holes in the writer’s logic (to reduce cognitive dissonance).

My biggest bias, though, was my illusion of superiority: a tendency to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our negative attributes when we compare ourselves with others. Although I didn’t feel superior to Ms. Grimes, I convinced myself that I didn’t have much to learn from her.

Of course I did. My tunnel vision of stats and earnings had trapped me in a fixed mindset, a world of scarcity and competition.


The Thief of Joy

Teddy Roosevelt left us with some killer quotes like “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is also the foundation of all competition. Especially the disabling kind of competition that makes you doubt the what, why, when, where, and how of your work.

Of course, comparisons are beneficial. Without a system of measuring, how do we know we’re getting closer to what we need or where we’re headed? A good answer is not to stop comparing, but to compare your progress against your former self — yesterday, last week or last year. Benchmark on personal bests. Don’t worry about anyone else’s.

The ancient thief that Roosevelt referenced, the one that can rob us of our serenity and gratitude, is based on anyone else, not ourselves. Comparing to others robs us of honoring what we have achieved and aspects of success that society doesn’t recognize as valuable: self-care, good relationships, and understanding what’s enough.

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Enough Versus Scarcity

So as I’m driving back to Athens from an overdue self-care-with-a-friend weekend in Asheville, that Medium article — the reminder of how much money I’m not making, how much time each article has taken me to write and edit, and (as a self-flagellating bonus) fifth-guessing my decision to quit academia — is poking into me. I turn on NPR to distract myself with Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain.

The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in a Hole could not have been more salient for me.

https://www.npr.org/2017/03/20/520587241/the-scarcity-trap-why-we-keep-digging-when-were-stuck-in-a-hole#

When you’re desperate for something, you focus on it to the detriment of everything else.

People who lack money to meet basic needs worry constantly about feeding their families today; they can’t worry about rent. The loneliest people who hunger for companionship appear awkward when talking to strangers. If they seem desperate, that’s how they feel. The time-starved (e.g., physicians who work 80 hours a week) overspend their mental energy on juggling time. Scarcity affects more than our bodies: it affects our brains. Detrimentally.

You can become so obsessive about what you lack, you can’t focus on anything else.

We all tunnel in on what’s missing. Inside our own tunnels we are consumed by this lack, leaving us no bandwidth to focus on anything else. Inside the tunnel, there’s no outside, no bigger picture to attend to. Scarcity captures the mind. One out-of-reach goal is all we think about. Not because we don’t want to. But because we can’t think about anything else.

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Scarcity as a Mindset

An important point: Lacking money for food and housing is not the same as a doctor being over-worked. Fascinating, though, that a mother who had spent her last $500 on food and diapers while forgetting to save some for gas had made the same decision-making error that a new doctor made after working consistent 18-hour days. They were both making decisions without the ability to think past their immediate lack.

Scarcity tunnels are equal opportunity offenders. Here are some simple strategies based on what I gleaned from The Scarcity Trap. In case you find yourself in a hole:

Stop digging deeper.

Turn around to see that sliver of sunlight above you. Take a break and come to the surface. We’re not built to see much, let alone gain insights, in the same underground dwelling. Scarcity is its own trap.

Balance being in the present and doing for the future.

While out of the tunnel — even momentarily — breathe. Would life crumble if you took 10 minutes to meditate or mindfully breathe? Without fixating on the past, what would it look like to regularly emerge from the hole, to be more present with those you love?

Don’t be fooled (anymore) that more = more.

Shankar’s epilogue revealed how the working mother and doctor had escaped their respective tunnels. The doctor, who’d ignored her own health and had almost forgotten to order insulin for a Type 1 diabetic patient, now makes room for a hobby and a social life. She is able to hold more patient care ideas and data in her head. She’s a better doctor. And she’s happier.

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This resonated. Spring semester, sophomore year, I finally got my single dorm room. I cut my credit hours to 14 and worked a lighter work study load. I was determined to pour everything I had into academics. My grades that May constituted my lowest GPA of eight semesters. I was also depressed. All I was doing was doing — and mostly alone.

Let other people help you see the light.

Get out of your head and onto a more work-life-balance path. Schedule down time for yourself and with those you care about. I’d “taken” two full days to meet friend in Asheville, hoping I could catch up to all my real and imagined work (and worries) when I returned.

Instead, I received relaxation, the loving company of a good friend, and a bigger idea of what success looks like. I met Monday with softer edges of a lighter texture. It’s much more me.

I’d love your feedback. As a writer, how you respond to your scarcity traps?

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